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Quebec election could turn on values charter and PKP gamble

Henry Milner expects that if the PQ loses or wins only a minority, leader Pauline Marois will quit. (Rachel Côté)

Henry Milner expects that if the PQ loses or wins only a minority, leader Pauline Marois will quit. (Rachel Côté)

As a political scientist and author who actively supported the Parti Québécois, Henry Milner brings a unique perspective to political analysis in Quebec.

He explains his involvement, which included running as a PQ candidate in Westmount in 1981. “In terms of making a better society around us, they were the most logical vehicle we could work with.”

Milner worked closely with former PQ cabinet minister Pierre Marc Johnson and others to recruit non-francophones to the party.

Milner, much like other social democrats, felt at the time that “the message not just be limited to francophones, but those of us who spoke the language and had networks within the anglophone community should at least communicate the message.”

“We weren’t expecting many votes, but we thought it certainly would help,” he said by phone from the Dominican Republic. As for running for election in Westmount, he joked: “I chose a riding that would guarantee that I wouldn’t get elected.”

“Intellectuals do not want to give up intellectual distance and they make lousy politicians,” he remarked. After teaching political science for 35 years at Vanier College, and lecturing at universities around the world, Milner since 2006 is a research fellow with the Canada Research Chair in electoral studies at the Université de Montréal.

Regarding the proposed charter, Milner compares it with Bill 101, which was controversial in 1977 and is now widely accepted as having helped secure the place of French in Quebec.

His party activism ended about 20 years ago, but he supports the general thrust of Bill 60 and the Charter of Quebec Values.

Milner says the charter, and its proposed ban on wearing of religious symbols by those who work in the public sector, should not be viewed as an unwelcome mat to ethno-cultural communities, though he distances himself from the PQ’s unwillingness to compromise.

“It’s unfair to simply dismiss it for that purpose. I think the charter goes unnecessarily far, but there is nothing wrong with a state being secular. The party and the government should have been a bit more sensitive, at least in the way that they framed it and in attempting to get a wider consensus.”

The wearing of the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, is a major focus of the debate, and Milner says he shares the view of Fatima Houda-Pépin, the Liberal MNA who was forced out of the Liberal caucus, that it be banned for judges, prosecutors, police and prison officers, who are in a position of coercive authority. This was the position of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in 2008.

While the law does tell Quebecers who work for public agencies how they may not dress, Milner argues it is meant to free women from any compulsion to wear the headscarf.

“Any attempt to tell women that they have to dress a certain way is not acceptable to the Quebec community. … The state of Quebec, when given the chance, has to send a message that says, ‘No, that’s not the way that it works around here.’ That’s the basis of the charter. All the stuff about kippas, etc., is essentially irrelevant … you cannot just single out one religious group and say we’re going to have a charter that applies to one religious group.”

While some Muslim women may be wearing the hijab out of personal conviction, others are doing it because of “some kind of imposition,” Milner says. “Anyone who thinks all Muslim women who wear the hijab are doing it perfectly freely is simply fooling himself.

“If the Liberals—Jean Charest, who appointed the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, and now Philippe Couillard—had had the political courage of adopting its recommendations, we wouldn’t have this divided society.”

The PQ’s commitment to a hard line was “partly principle,” Milner says, but also part of a strategy that some in the party believed could win certain seats.

The recruitment of media mogul Pierre Karl

Péladeau as a PQ candidate, with his fist in the air calling for an independent Quebec, was thought to be another strategic move to attract a constituency that is not automatically pro PQ. It is aimed at so-called soft nationalists who are more conservative and can swing to the Liberals, the PQ or such third parties as François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec.

Milner says the strong sovereignist debut of Québecor’s Péladeau as a politician “forced the sovereignty referendum back into the debate, which in that sense made it a strategic error.” These elements served to detract from what Milner believes was the PQ government’s “pretty good, not extremist” track record, with such progressive moves as the right-to-die legislation, a compromise position in raising university tuition fees slightly, and prudent fiscal policy.

“I frankly am astounded that they did that,” he said of the PQ’s presenting Péladeau’s candidacy.

“When an incredibly powerful figure comes to you and is willing to be your candidate, your first reaction is ‘wow.’ It seems their strategic thinking eluded them for a while. It could end up losing them the election, in terms of bringing the referendum back onto the agenda.”

Looking to the future, Milner expects that if the PQ loses or finds itself back in a minority, leader Pauline Marois will quit.

He expects Bernard Drainville and Jean-François Lisée will vie for the leadership and doubts that Péladeau, as a newcomer in a party where activism and long-term commitment count, will easily be crowned as the new PQ chief.

As for the future of a sovereignist party, Milner says there are good reasons to sustain the basic idea of an independent Quebec, but he wonders whether the Internet generation can be attracted.

“Young people live in a world that has no national boundaries. It doesn’t even have set organizations. Your Facebook friends are your basic world.

“Something is happening to political parties, especially those that identify with national boundaries. I am not sure where it leads, but it could raise long-term questions about the whole idea of an independent Quebec.”

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