Minority Rights, Bill 21 and the Election

Brian and Mila Mulroney as he wins the Central Nova byelection taking him to the House as Progressive Conservative leader in 1983. In the leadership campaign his constant refrain was of the Liberal hold on 100 ridings across Canada with a 15 per cent Francophone vote: “You give Pierre Trudeau a head start of a hundred seats and he’s going to beat you 10 times out of 10.” A year later, Mulroney swept French Canada and won the biggest landslide in Canadian history. Toronto Public Library Photo


In all the post-election talk about the country being regionally divided, the good news is that the divisions were largely attributed to economics and ideology, not language. But as former official languages commissioner and longtime Globe and Mail and Montréal Gazette correspondent Graham Fraser writes, minority rights are always a story beneath the numbers.

Graham Fraser

Oct. 26, 2019

When Brian Mulroney was running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1983, one of his arguments to potential Tory delegates was that there were over 100 ridings in Canada with more than a 15 per cent French-speaking population. “You give Pierre Trudeau a head start of a hundred seats, and he’s going to beat you ten times out of ten,” he repeated, night after night. It worked. He not only won the leadership ; a year later, he won the largest majority in Canadian history.

Thirty-five years later, the percentages may have changed somewhat, but outside Quebec’s 78 seats, there are still some 20 seats across the country where the Francophone vote is a significant factor. Stephen Harper knew that and embraced official bilingualism, which enabled his Conservative Party to win seats like Glengarry-Prescott-Russell in eastern Ontario in 2006 and St. Boniface, in Manitoba, in 2008.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals also understood that. Trudeau’s own grasp of language policy was sometimes shaky — when he was criticized for responding in French to a question in English about the absence of mental health services in English in Québec’s Eastern Townships, his first response was to say he answered a question in French in Peterborough in English. Nevertheless, the French-speaking minority communities understood that the Liberal Party was a more comfortable and supportive home for them. So, in 2015, the Liberals swept Atlantic Canada, including all of the Acadian seats, won back Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Sudbury and St-Boniface, and captured Edmonton Centre, home of the Campus St-Jean, the French- language campus of the University of Alberta. As a result, the Standing Committee on Official Languages of the House of Commons was filled with government members from minority Francophone constituencies: Darrell Samson from Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook, Paul Lefebvre from Sudbury, Dan Vandal from St. Boniface and Randy Boissonnault from Edmonton.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, and to honour the occasion, the House and Senate committees, the Fédération des Communautés Francophones et Acadienne (FCFA) and the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie all organized roundtables, conferences and consultations on the modernization of the Act. With the government activity occurring in the winter and spring, only months before the election, it was hard to avoid thinking that the exercise was as much about assuring Francophone minorities that the Liberals had not forgotten them as it was about preparing for the introduction of new legislation.

In fact, all of the parties endorsed the modernization of the Act, ensuring that this was not a major point of contention during the campaign. The Liberals were simply more believable on the issue. The Conservatives did their own share of minority messaging. In his appeal to Québec voters, Andrew Scheer included a promise to create a tribunal that would judge institutions that were in breach of the Official Languages Act — one of the measures called for by the FCFA. And New Democrat François Choquette tried to fill the role that Yvon Godin, the Acadian firebrand and former New Democrat from Acadie-Bathurst, had played in defence of minority language rights.

But to no avail. Choquette fell to a Bloc Québécois candidate, as did the two Québec Conservatives who had been the most active on the language file, Alupa Clarke and Sylvie Boucher. But two Conservatives who were elected in ridings with a French-language community have both demonstrated knowledge of the issues. Chris d’Entremont, elected in West Nova, is the former minister of Acadian affairs in the Nova Scotia government and James Cumming, who defeated Randy Boissonault in Edmonton Centre, participated in the roundtable organized by the FCFA on the modernization of the Official Languages Act.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet had his own message to minority communities after he led his party to 32 seats in Québec, telling them that the Bloc is an ally. “I am asking, in all friendship with the precious English community of Quebec that is so rich in culture and so close in friendship, to support our wish that the Franco-Canadians and the Acadians enjoy the same rights and privileges that the Anglo-Québecers have in Québec,” he said in his declaration the day after the election.

Since the current Québec government has been handing over English schools to French school boards and discussing the abolition of all school boards, this is somewhat disingenuous. But Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s shelving of plans for a French-language university in Ontario, while there are three English-language universities in Québec, has not contributed to better understanding of the respective challenges the language minorities face. But minority Francophone representatives were appreciative. Marie- Claude Rioux, director-general of the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle- Écosse (FANE) applauded Blanchet’s comments, noting that he had indicated he would defend the interests of Francophones and Acadians as well as the interests of Quebec.

There has been a facile interpretation of the Bloc victory to the effect that it is entirely due to Quebec’s Bill 21, the legislation that prevents public employees, including teachers, from wearing obvious religious symbols, such as crosses, kippas or, more to the point, hijabs. This was certainly a factor; in Montréal and Laval, where immigrants actually live and work peacefully with everyone else, the Liberals virtually swept. Only one New Democrat, deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice, survived.

The Bloc surge happened in rural and small town Québec: the heartland of François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec. And while Bill 21 is popular, Québecers feel even more strongly that the rest of the country should not be telling them what to do.

And Blanchet ran a masterful campaign. Calm, smooth and articulate — in contrast with his nickname, Goon, acquired when he was a Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly — he adroitly managed to distinguish between his sovereignist convictions and his autonomist mandate. (Had Andrew Scheer handled the abortion and same-sex marriage issues as skilfully, he might be prime minister).

Québec Premier François Legault has found the same sweet spot that Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis located and used so effectively: a conservative nationalism that stresses Québec identity and autonomy rather than independence. And Blanchet has slipped into his wake, opposing federal interference in Québec jurisdiction and Québec affairs, but acknowledging that independence is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future. Just as Duplessis sent 50 members of Parliament as part of John Diefenbaker’s sweeping majority in 1958, the 32 Bloc members are both inspired and constrained by the Legault mandate. Their success is part of a return to old-fashioned French-Canadian nationalism, supported by the CAQ, the Bloc and a chorus of columnists in the Journal de Montréal.

History doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain reputedly said, but it often rhymes. This election was an echo of 1962, when 26 Créditiste MPs from Québec reduced the Diefenbaker government to a minority. In the next election, Justin Trudeau will either regain a majority, as his father did in 1974, or be dismissed, as John Diefenbaker was in 1963. In both cases, support from French-speaking voters proved to be critical.

Graham Fraser is a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and the author of Playing for Keeps: The Making of the Prime Minister 1988.