The evening before the September 4 Quebec election, Kathleen Weil could be seen strolling along Monkland, enjoying a dish of ice cream and appearing confident of personal victory in N.D.G.
Schmoozing in outdoor cafés, she and her constituents were concerned about a PQ return to power, as predicted in the polls.
Today, Weil is no longer Quebec immigration minister, though she won a clear majority with 68 per cent of the vote—5,000 more votes than when she was first elected in 2008. She is now the co-chair of the committee to elect Philippe Couillard as leader.
The voter turnout overall was a stunning 17 per cent greater than in that election.
The most obvious cause in this federalist riding, confirmed by Weil in her voter contact, was fear of an imminent PQ victory.
“People would actually come up to me very concerned about the PQ getting a majority, or even a minority,” Weil said in an interview at her riding offices in the building next to the Vendôme métro.
Voter turnout in the riding was up 25 per cent, but though the Coalition Avenir Québec ran an attractive young candidate, Angely Pacis, that challenge from the centre-right garnered fewer than 4,000 votes.
“The stakes were just too high
and the voters wanted an experienced team. There was some issue about corruption, but it didn’t play very big. It did have an effect in some other ridings—this perception that maybe the Liberal brand was tarnished by a number of these files—but I didn’t feel that very strongly.
“Sovereignty was the big issue, the possibility that we would be back on that train and reignite all these divisive debates, that people would suffer personally and that Montreal would suffer.”
A second, not-unrelated issue that upset voters was PQ talk about “identity,” and a proposed Charter of Secularism. It would ban the wearing of any religious item by public servants—Muslim headscarf, Jewish kippah, Sikh turban—but retain the large crucifix in the National Assembly and the wearing of discreet crucifixes.
“People realized this was a very hypocritical position, and it’s divisive.”
(Algerian-born Jamila Benhabib, the PQ’s poster-person on the secularism issue, lost in Trois-Rivières riding.)
Then Jean-François Lisée, the PQ strategist and former Radio Canada reporter elected in Rosemont, proposed that an immigrant who speaks French from Shanghai is “worth less than an immigrant from Bordeaux because the language he speaks at home is not French.”
Weil felt “relieved” with the result, a PQ minority with the Liberal opposition holding second place with a solid 50 of 125 seats.
The immediate resignation of Jean Charest gives the party an opportunity for renewal, she said.
A lot of people wanted change. But rather than anything specific, Weil said voters want to see the party return to (an emphasis on) basic liberal values—diversity and individual rights.
For example, now-Premier Pauline Marois said during the campaign she might invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if measures to extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs or a secularism charter were overturned.
“To them, the Supreme Court is a foreign court. They make no distinction between politicians—‘Ottawa’—and the politically independent highest court,” Weil said.
A long-term observer in the National Assembly noted that Weil didn’t get many questions in the House during her time as justice, then immigration minister, because “she can answer,” defeating the purpose of embarrassing the government.
The Collège Marie de France alumnus’s French is “better than most of her francophone colleagues,” the Quebec observer said.
At 57, Weil is attractive and articulate, looks you in the eye when talking, and exudes integrity, intelligence and sincerity.
She was the president and CEO of the Foundation of Greater Montreal and served in a variety of community organizations as chairperson of the Regional Board of Health and Social Services.
A graduate in history and political science and then law from McGill University, Weil raised three daughters and a son with her husband, Michael Novak, executive vice-president at SNC-Lavalin. Weil’s father, Paul, came to McGill from the U.S. to study medicine. He practiced at the Royal Vic, where her mother, Mary, was director of public relations.
Would Weil consider a leadership bid? She says she’s not ready. “You need a lot of experience. Politics is an incredible learning curve. It takes someone with a strong finance and economic background.”
As for her move from philanthropy and community service, Weil says she has no regrets.
“It is a tough world, but you really have to have a thick skin. You have to know who you are. That’s what keeps you anchored. You have your own moral judgment, your own moral compass.”