Quebec's New Mood

Ah, Quebec.

Quebec's New Mood

Ah, Quebec. Where else can a young thirtysomething fringe party leader with a knack for cool suits and clever repartee become the premier-in-waiting, almost overnight?

Mario Dumont created quite a stir during his first official foray into English Canada late last month, standing in front of a giant Maple Leaf at the Canadian Club in Toronto, uttering a political doctrine far enough to the right to startle any oil-patch Reformer, adding for good measure that Canada is OK and that the language situation in Quebec should be left alone.

In Quebec, where everything is national, l'État - the State - has been a sacred cow for 40 years. Even Liberals here routinely sound like bearded socialist interventionists. But Dumont is promising to slash the province's bureaucracy and abolish job security in the public sector. That, and allow a two-tiered health system to boot. If an election were held today in the province, polls indicate Dumont would become premier.

Have we been missing something here?

A few months ago, Mario Dumont was a featherweight pol with a future. Then, his party started winning by-elections, and suddenly Dumont's future is now. Premier Bernard Landry's Parti Québécois and Liberal Leader Jean Charest are scrambling, reacting almost daily to Dumont's pronouncements. He has set Quebec's political system on its ear. The press just loves Mario.

What happened? "That is very typical of Quebec," says Jean-Marc Léger, a pollster and marketing expert in Montreal. "Trends tend to take off much faster here than in the rest of the country. They tend to die much faster as well."

People in Quebec do many things differently. They drive faster, but so far can't turn right on a red light. Pedestrians view jaywalking as mere assertiveness. People here go out of their way to buy fresh bread every day; they drink more wine, less booze than in the rest of Canada. Cars that are hot sellers in Quebec - the Volkswagen Golf, for instance - are often oddities in other provinces.

Léger is an expert on the Quebec difference. With offices in Toronto, Winnipeg and New York, as well as Montreal and Quebec City, he specializes in helping large corporations gain a foothold in the unique Quebec market. "I think it is fair to say that Mario Dumont is the by-product of deeper changes that have taken place in Quebec, more than the cause of change," he points out.

What changes? We can get a clue from the squeegee kid who was recently working the busy corner of Sherbrooke Street and St-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal. "Things are looking up for me, because now I am able to beg in three languages - French, English, Spanish," he boasted to his pierced-lipped lady friend. A trilingual francophone street kid, washing windshields on Flag Alley, the strip forever associated in the national psyche with crowds of demonstrators waving the fleur-de-lys, chanting "Le Québec aux Québécois," year after year?

Precisely. The language situation has changed, and so have the political priorities of voters. The Parti Québécois was slow to realize that. The Liberals were coasting along, waiting for the PQ to fall. Then Dumont emerged: a fresh face, a new approach. "He certainly is the right product at the right time," says Léger.

"Trilingual. That is your key word," says Guy Bouthillier, the president of the Société St-Jean Baptiste, the nationalist lobby. "The younger generations of immigrants have learned French in school, English on the street, and their mother tongue at home. And of course, most Anglos who have stayed or come here can now speak some French." The old barriers have fallen. It is a new Quebec out there.

Everywhere you look, you see signs that Montrealers have come out of their various ghettos. Teenagers are developing a new way of speaking French, light-years away from joual - the hermetic, working-class vernacular favoured by their nationalist parents. Today, they speak Jacques-Villeneuvese - a slightly mannered accent, with distorted diphthongs and a singsong rhythm that sounds vaguely international-chic, and is practised by kids of all cultural backgrounds here but heard nowhere else in the world.

Giving English-sounding names (Le Rest Area) to bars and restaurants in francophone neighbourhoods is cool. Anglos have long since ventured outside their designated hangouts of Crescent Street or Greene Avenue. Now they are bold enough to speak English loudly on the street on the Plateau Mont-Royal - and since they can also speak French when needed, they are not frowned upon when they don't. Hearing Anglos insisting on ordering in French to French waiters insisting on serving them in English is not even a story anymore - it is common.

Callers to the Gazette are greeted with a cheery "Bonjour!" The Gazette is a good story. Until recently, its mission statement was: "The English language. Daily." A new publisher - former Alouettes football star Larry Smith - has adapted it to the new times in a happy, all-embracing city. "The Gazette is all of Montreal," he told Maclean's. "We are taking an inclusive approach. There are 350,000 Montrealers, francophones, anglophones, allophones, people multicultural and multilingual, who could read the Gazette but don't." For Smith, linguistic peace means business opportunity.

There. Montreal is coming together at long last. Fine - the linguistic tensions were mostly felt there. But opinion polls repeatedly stress that people throughout Quebec express a "need for change." A political system based on the former divisions is due for a major shakeup, and that is what is happening in the province today. The Quiet Revolution is unravelling. That is the story.

Quiet Revolution was the name given to the push by the Liberals led by Jean Lesage in the sixties to modernize the Quebec government and have it play an increasingly aggressive role in the economy. The subtext was: the economy is controlled by Westmount Anglos, and French-speakers are not welcome. L'État du Québec was born. French-speakers quickly adjusted to the fact that "their" government in Quebec City was rooting for them. For many, Big Brother was a nice guy. Once the initial economic imbalances between Francos and Anglos were offset, Big Brother barged onto the linguistic landscape. Under the PQ, the State became the guardian of the "collective rights" of the French-speaking majority. The Liberals rode that platform too. For a long time, it was difficult to criticize the role of the State in Quebec without risking being branded as a sellout, a traitor, an enemy - or worse, a federalist.

What the street is telling the government today is: OK, we're fine, thank you very much.

To counter the meteoric rise of Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec, the Liberals have acted boldly. They have published a working draft of their own centrist platform - a year ahead of the expected election. It puts them to the left of Dumont's party and to the right of the PQ. The ruling PQ will be left defending a traditional, albeit modernized left-wing stance: stressing the importance of a vigilant government, equipped to protect individuals against the greed-heads running the world's economy.

One of Dumont's favourite lines is, "We have to think outside the box." The box, in Quebec, is the role the provincial government is expected to play in citizens' daily lives. That is a long way from the "within or without Canada" that has dominated public debate here for years. It is going to be an interesting time in Quebec politics.

Maclean's October 14, 2002