“Les belles-mères” is not a play by Michel Tremblay. “The mothers-in-law” is the nickname given in Quebec politics to the former leaders of the Parti Québécois who supposedly meddle in the relationship between the leader of the day and the party by publicly criticizing the former.
Lucien Bouchard has lost no time in becoming the latest former leader to play that role. Less than a week into the honeymoon between Jean-François Lisée and the party following Lisée’s election as leader, Bouchard used a previously scheduled public speech to express a mixture of approval and disapproval of his present successor.
In the opening speech at a colloquium on PQ founder René Lévesque, Bouchard defended Lisée against criticism of his position on the independence referendum.
During the leadership campaign, Lisée made the commitment that under his leadership, a PQ government elected in 2018 would not hold a referendum in its first four-year term. For that, he was called a “provincialist” by leadership rival Martine Ouellet, who wanted a referendum, and he has been criticized by the minor pro-independence parties.
Bouchard said Lévesque had shown there is nothing wrong with providing the province with good government while waiting to hold a referendum until Quebecers were ready to vote for independence.
He listed several achievements of past PQ governments that had “lowered themselves” to exercising Quebec’s powers within the Canadian federal system.
Bouchard said Lévesque would have been “troubled” by the recent debates in the PQ on identity.
Lévesque had an “unbreakable attachment” to minority rights, and would be “worried by any deviation related to identity … fearing the effect of the exclusion” that immigrants and their descendants would suffer as a result.
Lisée proposed to reduce immigration and argued in favour of banning the public wearing of Muslim facial veils. He would allow public bodies to discriminate in hiring against candidates who wear conspicuous religious symbols such as the Muslim head scarf, and would discourage present public employees from continuing to do so.
On Lévesque and minority rights, Bouchard is on shaky ground. It’s true that Lévesque would not hesitate to intervene at party policy conventions, even threaten to resign, to defend what he considered legitimate minority language rights.
But while Lévesque was uncomfortable with Bill 101, which reduced those rights, it didn’t stop his government from passing it.
And nationalist commentator Mathieu Bock-Côté has also pointed out that after the constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms was imposed on Quebec, Lévesque’s government systematically invoked its “notwithstanding” clause to override the charter’s protection of fundamental rights.
In defending Lisée on the referendum, Bouchard also implicitly justified his own policy as PQ premier of waiting for the “winning conditions” to hold one.
On that issue, Lisée scarcely needs Bouchard to defend him. Hardliner Ouellet finished third and last in the deciding second count in the leadership election, with only 18 per cent of the vote. And PQ members have previously shown that they will compromise on independence if it’s necessary to return their party to power.
And on identity, Lisée needn’t worry about Bouchard’s criticism. It’s been more than 20 years since Bouchard, with former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, led the indépendantistes to a near-victory in the last referendum. Since then, his political influence, with Quebecers in general and PQ members in particular, has all but disappeared.
As I wrote previously, Lisée needs to be more concerned with the present, and the pressure that he faces from both the expectations of PQ members and competition from the Coalition Avenir Québec party to maintain a hard line on identity now that the leadership campaign is over.