MONTREAL – Canadians can breathe easier with the new Parti Quebecois leader, a pragmatic and wily politician who promises that if elected premier in 2018, he won’t hold a sovereignty referendum until at least 2022 — if ever.
And while the media attention surrounding Jean-Francois Lisee’s campaign and election — especially outside Quebec — was less intense than during the leadership period of his predecessor, Pierre Karl Peladeau, Canadians would be wise to take notice of the new PQ leader.
A former journalist, author and adviser to two separatist premiers, Lisee’s policies and approach to federalism provide a blueprint that help explain Quebec’s shifting politics heading into the next decade.
Instead of considering Ottawa and its political denizens as enemies, Lisee says Quebec under his leadership would try to “get justice within the system.”
“My message to Canadians is that we want to have our fair share,” Lisee said in excellent English during an interview with The Canadian Press.
He’s a left-wing progressive with a trail of academic and news articles going back decades detailing his big-government proclivities. And he honed his English as the Washington correspondent for Montreal La Presse in the 1980s.
His oratory prowess is in the mould of iconic separatist leader Jacques Parizeau, who received a PhD from the London School of Economics.
“We feel we have differences that are quite important,” Lisee said about Quebec and Canada. “But the issue will not come to a head in the very near future so we can get on with the business of trying to do the most with what we have.”
As Lisee’s position on a future sovereignty referendum reflects that of Quebec as a whole, his penchant for veering into identity politics to solidify popular support is also telling of where Quebec is going.
He is called “the daily tactician” by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who says Lisee holds incoherent positions that flirt with the politics of the European far right.
During the leadership campaign, Lisee erroneously said his main rival, Alexandre Cloutier, had the support of a controversial Islamic activist. Lisee also suggested Quebecers should begin discussing whether to ban the burka in the public sphere.
“Islam and Muslims pose no threat to anyone,” he said during the interview. “What’s at stake is radical Islam and the brand of Islam that is being peddled by Saudi Arabia and Iran and Qatar and that’s the new issue and that’s what is a challenge to every western democracy.”
Lisee’s PQ isn’t the only opposition party shifting its strategy to better reflect the mood of the population.
Francois Legault’s Coalition for Quebec’s Future recently inscribed in its constitution that it is a party “whose primary objective is to ensure the development and the prosperity of Quebec as a nation within Canada.”
Legault’s party, like the PQ, isn’t afraid of targeting Islam or criticizing current immigration levels as a way to increase support.
Couillard too, in the past few months, has started talking about “Islamism” and “radical Islam” in his speeches.
Pierre Anctil, a Canadian historian and University of Ottawa professor, says the changing political landscape away from sovereignty is largely due to young Quebecers being more globally focused than their parents and grandparents — and noticeably less interested in the agenda of language politics.
“By and large, people feel the situation is satisfying and there isn’t much more that can be obtained,” Anctil said, referring to the reality that English is barely spoken outside the Montreal area. “I think the battle has been largely won.”
Neither Lisee nor Anctil, however, has any doubts when asked what they believe is the most serious issue threatening political stability in the country. Both answered TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal.
“That’s the defining issue — the pipeline itself,” Lisee said. “That will be seen as unacceptable in Quebec,” he added, leaving no illusions about the fact the PQ will use the project as a major wedge issue in order to drum up anti-federalist sentiment in the province.
Energy East would bring what Lisee called “the most polluting oil in the world” from Alberta’s oilsands, through Quebec, to New Brunswick.
The 2018 fall election is still a political eternity away and the PQ and the Coalition will hope voter fatigue kicks in with regard to the Liberals, who have been in power all but two years since 2003.
The opposition parties will also try to take advantage of ongoing corruption allegations swirling around the Liberals.
Legault’s Coalition often polls within the margin of error of second place behind the Liberals, and Anctil says 2018 could be his time.
“I think we are ushering in an age where the CAQ (Coalition) could have some serious options and become the ruling party,” he said.