The PQ’s attempt to woo non-francophones is failing

BARRY CAME August 22 1994


The PQ’s attempt to woo non-francophones is failing

BARRY CAME August 22 1994



The PQ’s attempt to woo non-francophones is failing

Among the followers of the Parti Québécois, he is affectionately known quite simply as “Peppe.” It is a sobriquet that Giuseppe Sciortino clearly delights in wearing, almost as much as the party faithful enjoy bestowing it. For until last week, the burly, bearded 44-year-old Montreal labor lawyer was one of the rising stars in the Péquiste firmament, a protégé of PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau with a proven track record as the party’s chief policy-maker and the proud proprietor of prized ethnic credentials. As a Sicilian-bom immigrant, he was widely regarded as the individual who might finally help the PQ shed its image as the exclusive preserve of Quebec’s French-speaking majority. But those hopes collapsed in a crowded church basement within the shadow of Mount Royal last week, when a group of recalcitrant party stalwarts defied the party brass and denied Peppe Sciortino the nomination as the PQ candidate in the downtown Montreal riding of Mercier.

“That’s life,” a grim-faced Sciortino bravely commented, moments after he was defeated by veteran Montreal city councillor Robert Perrault in a messy nominating meeting at the St.

Denis church hall. And the Parti Québécois leadership, which had openly backed Sciortino’s bid, immediately attempted to downplay the results. “I’m disappointed,” admitted Parizeau, quickly adding that Sciortino’s rejection by the members of the Mercier riding organization could not be interpreted as a blow against the party’s ongoing, and so far largely unfulfilled, efforts to build bridges to Quebec’s large and multihued ethnic population, in particular the so-called allophones, those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. “An individual was defeated,” he said, “not an entire cultural community.”

Despite Parizeau’s best efforts, however, many leading members of the province’s ethnic minorities did regard Sciortino’s defeat as having a negative impact on their relationship with the Parti Québécois. “Look what happens even when we put up one of our own” was the acid comment of Max Bernard, an Egyptian-born Montreal lawyer who has been seeking, without success, to open a dialogue between Parizeau and a tripartite coalition of the city’s large Jewish, Greek and Italian communities.


The PQ’s setbacks in wooing the ethnic vote were mirrored by similar problems on other fronts last week as the Quebec election campaign built towards the impending

Sept. 12 vote. Hard on the heels of the divisive squabble over Sciortino’s mangled nomination bid came another series of largely self-inflicted blows. Among the most damaging was an inadvertently leaked internal party survey that appeared to indicate that Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard’s entry in the campaign was harming, rather than helping, the PQ election effort. That sent Parizeau and other party leaders scrambling to repair the damage. But it underüned the continuing confusion that has dogged the Parti Québécois almost from the moment the campaign began.

Public opinion surveys may well reflect that fact. Polls conducted during the PQ’s embarrassments indicated that Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson’s Liberals had cut into the PQ’s once commanding lead. First, a poll by the Montreal-based Centre de recherches sur l’opinion publique (CROP) between July 28 and Aug. 2 for La Presse and RadioCanada, the CBC’s French-language network, showed the Liberals narrowing the PQ lead to only two percentage points, a dramatic drop from a 10-point gap in a CROP survey conducted two weeks earlier. The PQ held a fivepoint edge in polling from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9 by Montreal’s Léger & Léger for Le Journal de Montréal. In both cases, the PQ enjoyed a much more favorable lead among Frenchspeaking voters alone. On election day, that would translate into a substantial PQ victory—between 80 and 90 seats in the 125-seat Quebec National Assembly.

Still, the polls point to potential problems for the Péquistes. Parizeau certainly seemed

to think so: he immediately changed tactics in the wake of the CROP survey. Parizeau shifted from emphasizing the PQ’s separatist platform to portraying his party as an alternative to a Liberal regime fatigued after nine years in power.

The effort was not entirely successful. Only a day after signalling the tactical switch, Parizeau could not resist promising Gaspé fishermen wider access to Canadian waters as part of an independent Quebec than they currently enjoy as mere provincial citizens of the country where, he claimed, they were nothing more than “prisoners of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.” And later in the week, he told an audience in Quebec City that indepen-


• A study issued by the Royal Bank of Canada, taking into account the possibility of a Parti Québécois election win, forecast robust growth in the Quebec economy.

• PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard shared a stage at a PQ nomination meeting to refute indications of political differences.

# Bouchard called on Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to enter the provincial campaign and challenged former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to debate him on Quebec sovereignty. Chrétien declined; Trudeau did not respond.

• Federal Tory Leader Jean Charest offered to speak out for Liberal Premier Daniel Johnson.

“They [Quebec voters] will not destroy the best country in the world for an adventure.”

—Jean Chrétien dence would inject new life in the staid old provincial capital, with foreign embassies, new government buildings, research centres, a supreme court and an official residence for himself, the head of the new government. “There’s going to be a boom for one obvious reason,” he announced to a delighted crowd in a city where much of the population is composed of provincial civil servants. “There will be new functions exercised from Quebec. The directing mechanisms of departments, which had never been here before and were in Ottawa, will move here. A lot of research activity that is linked to government operations in the Ottawa region will have to reappear here.”

The remarks chagrined some of Parizeau’s own supporters, mirroring as they did similar munificent pledges he had made a week earlier concerning $137 million in projects for his own L’Assomption riding northeast of Montreal. But they were quickly seized upon by the Liberals as being another example of what Johnson described as the PQ’s plans to transform Quebec into “an isolated, interventionist, protectionist country.”

But Johnson and his liberal party had their own problems last week. Like the Péquistes, the Liberals, too, continued to be plagued by unforeseen setbacks. In one of the more glaring examples of the party’s woes, Johnson’s effort to paint a dire portrait of the economic consequences of voters electing a PQ government was undercut from a most unlikely source—the Royal Bank of Canada. In an economic forecast, the bank predicted that Quebec’s growth would likely outpace the national average in 1995— even with the PQ in power. It said the province’s economy would expand by 4.2 per cent next year in comparison with an overall countrywide growth of four per cent.

For the Quebec premier, the timing could not have been worse. The Royal Bank’s forecast, prepared by chief economist John McCallum, occurred at almost the same moment as the Liberals released their own analysis of the PQ’s economic platform. Instead of being allowed to focus on the PQ’s shortcomings, Johnson was forced to lamely suggest that the bank’s economist had not paid enough attention to the Péquistes’ proposed economic policies while making his predictions. “I’m going to send him a copy of the PQ program,” the premier remarked. “I don’t think he has read it very closely.”

On the ethnic front, however, the Liberals were on much firmer ground in the wake of the unhappy fate that befell Peppe Sciortino in his attempt to win the loyalty of the PQ’s members in Mercier. “It’s a pity what happened to Sciortino in Mercier,” says Moroccan-born Fatima Houda-Pepin, the Liberal candidate in the riding of La Pinière in Montreal’s heavily ethnic suburbs on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river. “But it is typical of the PQ’s approach to the province’s cultural communities, for even if Sciortino had won that nomination he would still have been nothing more than a symbol.” According to the 42-year-old social activist and leader of Montreal’s North African community, who once flirted with the nationalist cause herself, Parizeau and the Parti Québécois are “simply not in the business of managing cultural diversity. The PQ is really only looking for symbols to soothe the fears the cultural communities harbor about Quebec independence.”

Stephane Dion, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, agrees. “The PQ is well aware that they have no appeal among Quebec’s minorities,” he says. “What they want to do is avoid creating a strong opposition, a potentially violent opposition. They want to convince the minorities in this province that, while they may not like the idea of Quebec independence, they should be prepared to live with it if the francophone majority votes for it.”

All the latest polls tend to support that view. The recent CROP survey, for example, found that the Liberals are currently attracting close to 80 per cent of the nonfrancophone vote. Even the Péquistes, in their more candid moments, are well aware of the situation. “We are not going to capture more than 10 of the 30 seats on the island of Montreal,” confesses PQ MNA Michel Bourdon, seeking re-election in the east-end Montreal riding of Pointeaux-Trembles. “And the reason for that is that we are not going to be able to persuade the vast majority of the anglophones and the allophones on the island to vote for us.”

The PQ’s senior planners are confident the situation will change eventually. “But it is going to take patience and time, a lot of time,” admits party vice-president and PQ candidate Bernard Landry, a key figure in the party’s long-term program to build bridges to the ethnic communities.

In the short term, however, the situation is disturbing in its implications. For it suggests that if, as the polls currently indicate, the Parti Québécois will form the next government of Quebec, it will not be a government that accurately reflects the increasing multicultural makeup of the province. And that is a situation fraught with peril. “It’s worrisome,” acknowledges Landry.

All of which helps to explain why Landry, along with the entire PQ hierarchy and a good portion of the more thoughtful members among the party’s rank and file, supported Peppe Sciortino’s bid for the Mercier nomination, a riding held since 1976 by the PQ’s Gérald Godin, who is not seeking re-election because of ill health. If elected, Sciortino would almost certainly have won a key cabinet position in a future PQ government. And that, at least, would have been a start. Unfortunately, the Péquistes in Mercier did not agree.

BARRY CAME in Montreal