Quebec could shape the federal election

For the first time in 42 years, the curtain rose on the opening speech of a new party governing in Quebec’s national assembly on Wednesday.

The circumstances could not have been more different than in 1976. Back then, the election of a Parti Quebecois government had sent shock waves across the country.

It propelled the unity issue to the forefront of the Canadian political conversation. There it remained for almost half a century.

As recently as 2014, the possibility of the election of a majority PQ government under Pauline Marois prompted then-prime minister Stephen Harper to uncharacteristically reach out to the premiers and to the main federal opposition leaders for advice on how to thwart the scenario of another referendum.

By comparison, little drama attended the delivery by Premier Francois Legault of his Coalition Avenir Quebec government’s opening speech. The next Quebec/Canada chapter is to be written by federalists at both the provincial and federal levels.

And while Legault is not a natural ally of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, his relationship with the prime minister is — at least for now — less adversarial than that of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

When it comes to federal-provincial relations, it is a bit as if Quebec had traded places with Ontario.

But the CAQ still stands to shape the next election’s conversation in ways that could be challenging for the main federalist parties, starting with Trudeau’s Liberals.

The immigration issue dominated the recent Quebec campaign and many observers expect it to resurface in the lead up to next fall’s federal vote.

They could be right, but it is not yet a given. Since the provincial election, the two governments have opened negotiations on Legault’s bid to reduce Quebec’s immigration intake. He is set to bring it down from 52,000 to 40,000 next year.

Legault also wants to insert a French-language fluency test in the citizenship process undergone by immigrants admitted under the Quebec/Ottawa agreement. Depending on the outcome of the discussions between the two capitals, a frontal collision may yet be if not avoided entirely, at least delayed somewhat.

It may prove harder to put a lid on the even more contentious debate over the balance between religious rights and the secular character of Quebec’s public institutions.

Like the two governments before his, Legault is committed to implementing coercive measures as part of his party’s secularist agenda.

The CAQ plans to introduce legislation early next year to impose a secular dress code on judges, Crown prosecutors, prison guards, police officers and teachers. The premier reiterated as much in Wednesday’s opening speech.

“We will be very firm on that and we will act rapidly,” he declared.

This will be the third kick by a Quebec government at the same divisive can of worms. In both previous instances, the initiative resulted in fiery debates.

Legault’s upcoming bill will similarly face legal challenges. But he says he will override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if need be to ensure it comes into force.

One way or another, the next instalment of the secularism debate is upon the province. As far as public opinion, it seems it is Legault’s to lose.

Neither Trudeau’s Liberals nor his Conservative and New Democrat rivals have much appetite for seeing the federal campaign become an extension of Quebec’s latest existential debate.

But inasmuch as the Bloc Quebecois and Maxime Bernier’s nascent People’s Party may be itching for a fight on what they believe could be fertile grounds in Quebec for their respective organizations, the main parties may have little choice in the matter.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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