CANADA

WHO CARES?

Quebec youth seem uninterested in the election campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 8 1994
CANADA

WHO CARES?

Quebec youth seem uninterested in the election campaign

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 8 1994

WHO CARES?

CANADA

Quebec youth seem uninterested in the election campaign

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Inside the command post of potentially one of the most important sources of information on the Quebec election campaign, it is sometimes difficult to tell which is the more attention-grabbing: the large autographed photos of some of the world’s pre-eminent rock, rap and reggae bands, or the high-volume strains of the American rock group the Smashing Pumpkins playing on the stereo. On the other hand, inside

the Montreal studios of Quebec’s hugely popular MusiquePlus television network, it is equally clear what topic does not get much attention these days. MusiquePlus, which has a weekly audience totalling 2.5 million Quebecers, was widely praised for its irreverent but incisive coverage of last year’s federal election, including its interviews with major political figures from all parties. “It would be fair to say that the overwhelming majority of our viewers haven’t spent two minutes yet thinking about the election campaign,” says producer André St. Pierre, 29. “My job is to change that.”

In an election in which the unavoidable backdrop is Quebec’s political future within or

QUEBEC DECIDES

outside of Canada, there is no group that stands to be more affected than the province’s young people. There is also, arguably, no group that appears less interested. “I get the impression from here that the rest of Canada is tying itself into great knots about this election,” says Richard Martineau, 33, the editor of the popular Montreal weekly newspaper Voir. “But among our audience, it’s sometimes hard to find anyone who could care less. I like to think that is a mark of common sense among our readers.” Similarly, St.

Pierre, who along with on-air personalities Geneviève Borne and Claude Rajotte will co-ordinate the network’s election coverage, faces no easy task. “The traditional debate between the traditional parties in Quebec is lost on our audience,” he says. Adds Borne: “Politicians make for some of our most interesting interviews because they know our audience is very important to them, but they don’t understand anything else about them.”

Anywhere else in North America, the notion that young people care more in summer about

rock than about raucous political campaigns would arouse no great surprise. But this is Quebec, where artists, singers and the young have usually been at the forefront of the province’s eternal debate over its political future. In 1970, for example, Quebecers could look to one side of the National Assembly and see their youngest-ever premier—Robert Bourassa, then 36—and to the Parti Québécois (PQ) side for the country’s youngest member of a legislature—Claude Charron, then 23. At the same time, chansonniers such as Felix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault became hugely successful singing ballads that amounted to paeans to Quebec independence. Close to half the PQ’s members were under 35, and polls showed that as many as two of three Quebecers under the age of 30 supported independence.

These days, most Quebec entertainers find other things to sing about. Popular comedian Jean-Guy Moreau, who became famous through his uncanny impersonations of such politicians as René Lévesque and Jean Drapeau, says that in his routines now, he stays away from politics “like everyone else in Quebec.” Most young people still support independence—but by a much smaller margin than in the past. A poll by the Montreal firm Léger & Léger in June showed that 56 per cent of respondents between 18 and 24 supported sovereignty, while 44 per cent were opposed. For respondents between the ages of 25 and 34, 53.6 per cent favored sovereignty, while 46.4 per cent opposed it.

But even those figures are probably suspect, because they presume a degree of interest in Quebec’s constitutional future that is currently lacking. For the moment, young Quebecers appear far more interested in such events as the annual Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival and Lollapalooza, a travelling rock show that features a collection of international music groups singing almost entirely in English. The rock festival drew 25,000 people when it came to Montreal last week—a figure that is more than the entire youth membership of the PQ (19,000) or the Liberals (10,000). The reasons why young people attend festivals are obvious enough, but the reasons why they do not get involved in politics are more complex. A primary one is disillusionment. “If you’re young, and trying to make up your mind between the Liberals and the PQ, it’s enough to make you think about jumping off a cliff,” says the soft-spoken but acerbic Martineau. ‘Then, you look at [Liberal Leader] Daniel Johnson and [PQ Leader] Jacques Parizeau and it makes you sure you want to jump.” A more positive reason is that young francophones have grown up under laws enforcing the primacy of their language, and thus have a sense of confidence in themselves that their elders lack.

But in other areas, even some politicians concede that young people—who were among those hardest hit by the recession—regard them skeptically as out of touch, unreliable and overly fond of making promises they have no intention of keeping. Gilles Baril, a charismatic

QUEBEC’S CAMPAIGN: WEEK 1

• Premier Daniel Johnson put a price tag on the separation of Quebec: $8 billion. He said that is how much Quebecers would lose by pulling out of cost-sharing programs with Ottawa and giving up other federal benefits. PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau put the cost of independence much lower: $281 million.

• Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said his province would have to take another look at its financial dealings with Quebec—including the $310 million worth of Quebec bonds it holds— if the PQ wins on Sept. 12. Parizeau dismissed the comments as “ill humor.”

“I don’t want to waste any time on federal-provincial tensions, discussions, hollering that we’ve known for the past 30 years. We have no time to waste on these things.”

— Jacques Parizeau

Péquiste who was first elected at age 24 in 1981, is attempting a return to politics after being defeated in 1989. Now 37, he says he finds young people “far more disillusioned and cynical than they were a decade ago.” In the past five years, Barii has staged a highly publicized and successful recovery from cocaine and alcohol addiction, and become director of a youth rehabilitation centre in his rural riding of Berthier, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. It is that work, rather than his previous political experience, that he stresses in dealing with the young.

Similarly, the flag-waving, emotional homilies to an independent Quebec that were a staple of political and artistic life in past years are no longer in evidence. Among artists, says

Michelle Labarre, an official with MusiquePlus, “it is hard to even think of contemporary music by Quebec artists that is overtly political.” Even those young people involved in politics pride themselves on being pragmatic. “The nationalism of young people is practical,” says Eric Bedard, 24, president of the PQ’s youth wing. “It’s not a nationalism of emotions based on a fleur-de-lys.”

In fact, the new mantra chanted at every opportunity by nationalists revolves around the phrase “a Quebec open to the world”—in both business and personal terms. One sign of that was the bitter and prolonged dispute that erupted last week between Johnson and Parizeau over whether a sovereign Quebec would automatically be included in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Parizeau cited a remark by an American official, whom he would not identify, who, according to the PQ leader, said Washington would not oppose such a measure. John„ son suggested that the claim was g “the most enormous invention I E have ever seen in my life.” Neither § leader questioned the desirability I of membership in NAFTA, and u small wonder: a study released last week by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the provincial pension fund, showed that

Quebec has benefited more from free trade than any other province.

When it comes to issues of openness, Quebec’s young have few lessons to learn from their elders. Repeated polls show that more young Quebecers than ever before are bilingual, and it is not uncommon to attend theatres showing English-language movies in Montreal where at least half the audience are francophones. Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between French and English, is now the point of union for the city’s most resolutely hip people of both languages. MusiquePlus, the French-language sister station of Toronto’s MuchMusic, makes a point of reflecting the changing face—or faces—of Quebec. Its hosts and reporters are all fluently bilingual and include three blacks, one of whom is an anglophone. ‘We want our audience to see themselves as the cosmopolitan group they are,” says Labarre.

Despite their increasing integration into the mainstream, it remains true that young anglophones and ethnic Quebecers still feel more comfortable defining themselves first as Canadians. “Quebec has always been a part of Canada. Why separate now?” says Annie Wong, a 26-year-old Montreal accountant of Chinese extraction. “I want a future in Canada.” Young francophones who support sovereignty tend to take for granted that it would be accompanied by an economic association with the rest of Canada. Yannick Gilbert, a 27-year-old insurance agent, does much of his business by telephone with clients in Ontario. If Quebec were to become sovereign, he would not expect the volume of his business to change. He plans to vote for the PQ and would vote Yes in a referendum on sovereignty because he wants what he calls “independence-association.” In his mind, that would include shared use of the Canadian dollar.

Even pro-sovereigntist young Quebecers reflect the same careful air of detached cynicism towards the established order as their counterparts elsewhere. Martineau of Voir is one of the bestknown and most interesting examples. He defines himself as a “post-nationalist: someone who favors Quebec independence, but hates nationalism.” He detests flag-waving and makes a point of leaving Montreal every June 24 because he finds the city’s traditional huge Fête nationale parade a “gross embarrassment.”

Most remarkably for a Quebecer—and, in particular, a Montrealer—the fluently bilingual Martineau is a devout admirer of Toronto, a city he calls “a model of cool in many ways.” He likes Toronto so much, in fact, that he tells his anglophone friends that “they are the real separatists because they stay in Montreal when they could

easily move to Toronto. Me, as a francophone and a journalist, I’m stuck here.” His support for independence is based on two beliefs, he says: “It is time to stop this unbelievably tedious debate between Quebec and the rest of the country, and it is also time for Quebecers to stand on their own feet and stop blaming everybody else for their problems.” He says that he—“and most young Quebecers”—would likely be contented federalists if the Meech Lake constitutional accord had passed in 1990, and he still feels “great sadness” at its failure. Now, Martineau wants a referendum on sovereignty because “we have to put this bloody issue behind us.” On the other hand, he adds, if Quebecers vote to stay in Canada, “I’ll certainly shed no tears: overall, the country has been good to me. I generally like other Canadians.” He, like many others his age, just is not sure whether he wants to be one.

CHRISTINA WOLANIUK