QUEBEC – Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade concedes Quebecers, including English-speaking citizens, do not know her well.
A consequence of the long COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the usual glad-handing politicians do to get closer to voters and party members, Anglade has only recently been able to up her political ground game.
In the last few weeks, as health measures gradually eased, Anglade has taken advantage of any extra time she has to roam the regions of Quebec, meeting Liberals and voters who she says never got a chance to see what makes her tick.
In the last seven weeks, her agenda reveals she has been to Mauricie, the Eastern Townships, Drummond—Bois-Francs and the Outaouais region in addition to visiting the South Shore riding of Marie-Victorin, where a byelection will be held April 11.
“Every time I meet people they say, ‘Oh we didn’t know who you were,’” Anglade said in a wide-ranging interview with the Montreal Gazette on Wednesday. “That’s why I need to go meet the people constantly, so they get to know me, learn what I stand for, what my values are, where I come from, what drives me.”
But these are difficult times for the Quebec Liberals and Anglade, the 48-year-old former cabinet minister who replaced Philippe Couillard as leader in May 2020. She is the first female leader in the 150-year history of the Liberals and its first leader from a visible minority.
The most recent dose of bad news for the party came on March 11 when it learned its support is not only stagnating across Quebec and with francophones, it has dropped in Greater Montreal and among non-francophone voters.
A Léger poll produced for the Journal de Montréal showed the Liberal share of the non-francophone vote in Quebec — a traditional bastion — had dropped by 13 percentage points between February and March.
According to pollster Jean-Marc Léger, it is the first time in the many years of his polling that the non-francophone vote for the Liberals slipped below 50 per cent. Support is now pegged at 46 per cent.
Léger said the Liberal attempt, under Anglade’s leadership, to position the party as more nationalistic in the current language debate, to counter the allure of the Coalition Avenir Québec, is probably to blame.
Instead of wooing francophone voters (the Liberals place dead last in that category), it drove away the non-francophones.
The same poll also appeared to confirm the Liberal attempt to woo more left, progressive voters with the adoption in November of Project ÉCO, its new pro-environment energy platform, was also a failure.
But it is the discontent among English-speaking Quebecers that apparently nobody in the party saw coming.
There are reports that Eastern Townships language rights activist Colin Standish is testing the waters about forming a new minority rights political party to compete with the Liberals and tap into the anglophone angst.
Sitting in her second-floor office at the legislature and with artwork by her children adorning the walls, Anglade said there will be many more polls before the Oct. 3 general election, so she is not panicking.
She said she does not get the same reading of the mood of voters.
“What I heard are people saying they’re fed up with a government that not only doesn’t listen but is constantly dividing Quebecers,” Anglade said.
“At the end of the day, I am a proud francophone in Quebec who can also speak English. I can relate to being a minority myself.”
She said she knows anglophones are angry with what they see happening under the CAQ government.
“I’m mad myself with what’s going on right now (with the government), but the alternative that we have is the Liberal Party,” Anglade said. “I’m a modern person. I’m an open person. I’m inclusive.”
Explaining the drop in support, Anglade said some minorities may not have grasped the fight the Liberals have waged since the CAQ took power in 2018, over the government’s immigration and secularism policies and more recently Bill 96’s overhaul of the Charter of the French Language.
Anglade said they went into the Bill 96 adoption process hoping to amend the legislation during the clause-by-clause analysis stage, which is currently underway.
Instead, the government has paraded out amendment after amendment making the bill “stricter for people,” including trying to apply Bill 101 to the CEGEP system without actually saying they are doing so, Anglade said.
On the other hand, the Liberals have given mixed signals on the language file, starting with the presentation in April 2021 of their own 27-point plan to shore up French, which ruffled the feathers of anglophones. Liberal Party members never actually voted on the plan in a plenary.
In the clause-by-clause process, Liberals on the committee abstained on some amendments, which English-speaking Quebecers found distasteful. It was a Liberal idea to suggest all students in the English CEGEP system be obliged to take three of their courses in French, and the CAQ ran with it.
In the end, the Liberals failed to block the enrolment freeze in the English CEGEP system, with Anglade announcing during a Feb. 23 visit to Dawson College that the Liberals would not be able to support the bill.
Journal de Québec columnist Antoine Robitaille wrote that decision spelled the end of the Liberal’s flirt with nationalism under Anglade and they are now trying to shore up their base of non-francophone voters.
Anglade has also taken up the fight to maintain Dawson’s expansion project, which the CAQ cancelled. She appeared this week at a news conference at the legislature with students who presented a petition with nearly 20,000 names urging the government to reverse its decision.
Anglade, however, said despite the current political optics she’s ready to fight on, attacking the government’s “we know best” attitude, which she finds anti-democratic and paternalistic.
“It’s definitely not a caring government. It’s a populist government,” Anglade said. “It is a government anchored in the politics of division. It’s French versus English, it’s immigrant versus non-immigrant, it’s regions versus the metropolis.
“François Legault says, ‘I’m governing for a majority of Quebecers.’ I will be governing for all Quebecers.”
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