André PratteMy View of Our Montreal

On October 3rd, the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) suffered the worst defeat of its 155-year history. Although it salvaged its Official Opposition status with 21 MNAs (now 19 with Marie-Claude Nichols’s departure and Dominique Anglade’s resignation), the results in many ridings outside the Island of Montreal were nothing less than catastrophic. In a significant number of ridings, the Liberals finished fifth and received less than 10% of the vote, in some cases less than 5%.

The QLP has no other choice but to rebuild. The election of new leader will help but will not be sufficient. Problems that were highlighted during the fall campaign need to be addressed. However, we need to be clear that rebuilding does not involve getting rid of the foundations.

Under Dominique Anglade’s leadership, the party unfortunately lost touch with its values and principles. That fact was particularly evident during the debate on Bill 96, the Legault government’s language bill. Considering the extraordinary use of the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, that put aside most of the fundamental rights protected by the Canadian and Quebec’s charters, the Liberals should have vigorously opposed the bill from the get-go. As we all know, that is not what happened.

Ms. Anglade is an exceptionally gifted person. But, under intense pressure to “reconnect” with the province’s francophone majority, she lost her way, and in so doing, disappointed the party’s supporters and confused the province’s voters.

The QLP now needs to answer two fundamental questions:

• What does being a Liberal mean in today’s Québec?

• How can the Liberals “reconnect” with the province’s voters, specifically French-speaking Quebecers, without sacrificing its principles?

“Rebuilding the Liberal Party does not involve

 getting rid of the foundations.”

Those are two difficult questions. To answer them will require a collective exercise, led by the party’s Policy Committee, involving all interested activists.

What does being a Liberal mean?

First and foremost, a Liberal believes in the crucial importance of protecting Quebecers’ fundamental rights. Not the rights of Francophones, not the right of Muslim Quebecers, nor the rights of the Anglos; the rights of each and all Quebecers. As former MNA Clifford Lincoln said in 1988 when he opposed Robert Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause: “Rights are rights are rights. There is no such thing as inside rights and outside rights. No such thing as rights for the tall and rights for the short. No such thing as rights for the front and rights for the back, or rights for East and rights for West. Rights are rights and will always be rights.”

Although Mr. Lincoln would surely disagree, in my humble opinion, respect for fundamental rights does not mean that the notwithstanding clause should never be used; after all, the clause is part of the Constitution and of the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, in the eyes of a liberal, it should only be used in exceptional circumstances, in a fashion that infringes rights the least possible, for the shortest period necessary. Clearly, Bills 21 and 96 do not satisfy those criteria.

The Quebec Liberal Party has always been the party of balance. This means:

• Preserving the always fragile French language while protecting Quebecers’ fundamental rights.

• Finding the appropriate balance between economic prosperity, the rigorous management of the government’s finances, social justice and sustainability.

As a result of the attempted “nationalist turn”, this sense of balance was lost. We need to find it anew.

Reconnecting with voters

The inescapable reality of politics is that after two mandates, voters begin to tire of a government, whatever its political color. This does not necessarily mean that the CAQ will lose the next election, but it does mean that four years from now, an increasing number of voters will be looking for an alternative. The Quebec Liberal Party needs to be that alternative.

Quebecers are a moderate people. This explains why the QLP is by far the oldest party in the province: Quebecers generally like our approach to government. Therefore, despite the current difficulties, the horizon in front of us is ripe with opportunities.

Commentators used to say that the Quebec Liberal Party was “le parti de l’économie”, the party of the economy. Quebecers were confident that if the Liberals won the election, they would manage the province prudently and wisely. Liberals were competent and seen as such. The difficulty in recruiting candidates for the October 3rd election gave the impression that Ms. Anglade had not succeeded in building such a solid team. Although this is grossly unfair to both the former leader and the candidates, the perception stuck in the minds of voters; voting Liberal was simply not seen as an option.

In 2026, there has to be no doubt that the leader of the QLP and his/her team have the required talent and experience to govern Québec as a moderate, centrist government, as the Liberals have always done.

The one thing we Liberals should not do is to try to beat the Caquistes at their own game, i.e. the nationalist one-upmanship. Contrary to what our adversaries claim, the province’s Liberals are and have always been Quebec nationalists. However, our unique stance is that we are liberal, federalist nationalists; we are convinced that preserving and promoting Quebec’s specific culture can be achieved within the Canadian federation and without infringing on Quebecers’ fundamental rights.

While believing with their hearts and minds in the Canadian adventure, Liberals must never cease to identify first and foremost with Quebec. As Claude Ryan wrote: “The identification with Quebec starts with an identification with its French-speaking majority. This presumes that the party reflects the aspirations of this majority, as well as its history, language and culture, institutions, way of life and particularities.”

“Despite the current difficulties, the horizon in front of us is ripe with opportunities.”

The task ahead

Quebec Liberals need to go back to their roots, not to dwell on the past but in order to stand on a firm footing as they envisage the current and future challenges of the Liberal Party and of the province. They have every reason to be proud of their party, its long tradition, its values and its extraordinary achievements in building a more prosperous, fairer, and more sustainable nation within Canada.

If they do their homework in the next couple of years, Liberals will be in a position to offer Quebec voters a competent, principled alternative to Mr. Legault’s rights-infringing, quasi-separatist, statist government. To get there will require clear-sightedness and courage. I know that we are up to the task.

André Pratte is a Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. He is also a member of the Quebec Liberal Party.

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