A new conservative wave has the old-timers worried
TAKE A FEDERAL ELEPHANT, send it through a cultural minefield in Quebec, and enjoy the view as the explosions light up a new political scene.
In this instance, the elephant was the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the minefield the radio-crazed, French-speaking bastion of Quebec City, and the kaboom came when the CRTC tried to shut down a local radio station. Six months later, CHOI-FM is thriving like never before and Jeff Filion, the shock-jock at the heart of the controversy, is enjoying some newfound clout. The incident has brought to light a new political landscape that has been quietly taking shape in the Quebec capital and its outlying regions. Filion has emerged as a key mouthpiece for a right-wing political stream, the likes of which Quebec has not seen in a long time.
The CRTC decision, which is currently on hold pending a court appeal, was not unexpected. CHOI-FM’s hosts were deemed to have repeatedly crossed the border of what is acceptable on the airwaves. What was unexpected was the reaction: in the dog days of summer, 50,000 came out to protest in support of Radio X (as CHOI, owned by Genex Communications Inc., was styling itself). It was easy enough to miss the political subtext to the affair, because Filion, 37, has earned himself many enemies in the seven years he’s been on air, subjecting business rivals, local politicians, gays, feminists, visible minorities, and a coterie of Montreal media and showbiz stars to relentless personal attacks, abuse and ridicule. But observers say les X, as CHOI’s supporters are known, were motivated by more than just the antics of a favourite on-air personality.
“There is a political side to Filion’s message, but that was lost in the national controversy,” Frédérick Têtu, 37, a philosophy professor at a local CÉGEP and a supporter of Filion. “The debate focused on outrageous comments Filion has uttered over the years, but his political views were lost on everyone, except those living in his listening area.” And those views are miles apart from the social-democratic ethos commonly associated with Quebec.
Filion himself describes les X as follows. “They’re an interesting animal—you can’t describe them by their look or their age, though there are a lot of thirtysomethings among them. It’s more an attitude. They’re people who have become allergic to the sacrosanct consensus, they’re fed up with the inertia and the complacency, they’re people who have realized the years ahead will be a load of shit and they’re the ones who’ll have to clean up the mess. They’re people who are fed up with the Péquiste view of the world, tired of living in a society where the real premier is union leader Henri Massé, no matter who gets elected. Tired of a society where I can take my dog to a private clinic, but not my mom. If the old gang that lives in the past with retrograde ideas and referendums could go away, we’d be a bit less angry already.”
That’s shock-jock talk all right. But... in Quebec City? Put this tirade in the mouth of, say, a Don Cherry, and watch the PQ explode. But Filion hails from the separatist heartland of Lac-St-Jean—and his father was an early Bloc Québécois MP. So, what’s up?
Mira Falardeau, an author in her 50s who used to teach at a local junior college, says she understands Radio X’s appeal— especially to the young. “They like what they hear, and it’s not just the music,” she says. “Youth has changed. It used to be that CÉGEP students were leftists, and idealistic. But the kids today don’t believe in much. It’s the end of utopia, that of the sixties, of May ’68 in Paris, of Jane Birkin, the feminists, all that.”
At the protest last July, les X bought $200,000 worth of caps and T-shirts with a big black X emblazoned on them. Such items have kept moving briskly since then, according to the station, and indeed it seems that in Quebec City one car out of five sports an X bumper sticker—here, radio listeners are a visible force. Marketing experts can pinpoint with some accuracy who is attracted to Radio X. “We call them the nihilists, and they’re quite a large group, maybe 20 per cent of the population,” says Céline Berre, who works for CROP, the polling and marketing firm in Montreal. “In a nutshell, they are people who have stopped believing, in politicians’ promises, in the social contract. They’re Darwinian: you look after yourself. They live in the here-and-now, and are not afraid of mild civil disobedience.”
The demographics may be limited, but les X provide a solid fan core for CHOI’s signature package of acid rock, blaring ads, mind-numbing sound effects—and talk. Over the last few years, Filion has slowly morphed from a goofy Howard Stern to an acid-tongued Rush Limbaugh. “We used to do real trashy stuff, like a city-wide search for the man with the smallest penis, but not anymore,” he told Maclean’s. Instead, these days Filion is sniping at “the socialists, the subsidized cultural elite, the fat-cat unions, the unanimous discourse, the farts in [the trendy Montreal district of] Plateau Mont-Royal, the dinosaurs in the Parti Québécois.” And his ratings have kept climbing.
Genex Communications is, of course, a nod to Generation X, the label Canadian writer Douglas Coupland slapped on those who immediately followed the demographic bulge of the baby boomers—today’s 25- to 40-year-olds. So quick, name a Gen-X political leader. Mario Dumont is 34, and his party, the right-of-centre Action démocratique du Québec, is wall-to-wall Gen-X talk. Here is Dumont on his generation’s view of life: “We come into the world, and see there has been a huge, expensive party. But the plates and the bottles are empty; all that’s left is the bill for us to pay.”
It’s true that today’s young people are more conservative and less optimistic than previous generations, says Têtu. “To understand why,” he adds, “you have to take a look at demographics.” Quebec City has stayed afloat mainly by attracting young people from the outlying regions, who go to the capital to study. “These kids see their communities dwindle and die in the Gaspé, or Lac-St-Jean,” Têtu explains. “For 30 years, la question nationale—nation-building in Quebec—has dominated the agenda. But for the younger ones, an aging, decreasing population is the key issue. Like—where will the money come from to support our society’s lifestyle? They don’t really buy into the PQ’s anthem about a shining tomorrow.”
If this is the vision of the future germinating in Quebec City, you don’t hear much about it in the Quebec media. Most are based in Montreal—where close to a quarter of the population was born outside Canada and where people are absorbed in creating the only French-speaking melting pot in America. Quebec City, almost totally white and francophone, is not on their radar. “It used to be that everything new and important came from Montreal,” Têtu says. “But this time, the wave is rolling from the east. It is concerned, conservative, even frightened, and nobody in Montreal sees it coming.” So, the old gap between Montreal and Quebec City has been widening. To the existing clichés—Montreal, worldly, Quebec, cozy; Montreal, cosmopolitan, Quebec, European; Montreal into making money, Quebec into making laws—we can add: Montreal, progressive, Quebec, conservative.
Not good news for the PQ—which finished third, behind the ADQ, in half of the 12 ridings in the region—and perplexing news for the ruling Liberals as they grapple with voter dissatisfaction. New alliances are forming. Jean-Luc Benoit, Dumont’s press attaché through the last election, is now CHOI’s communications director. Filion’s support helped the ADQ win a September by-election in Vanier, a working-class Quebec City neighborhood. Têtu volunteered with the ADQ in that campaign—and is now advising Stephen Harper’s Conservative party on a Quebec strategy. In a gesture aimed at capturing the hearts of Quebec voters, the Tories have decided to hold their national convention in Montreal next spring. Maybe they would have found a ready home in Quebec City.
The new conservative wave has some people worried—such as Quebec City’s outgoing Mayor Jean-Paul L’Allier. L’Allier has helped remake his city, whose downtown core used to have a rust-belt feel to it: derelict, useless. Now, thanks to an enlightened approach to urban renewal that has won kudos in Europe and the United States, it’s teeming with students, shoppers and high-tech wizards who meet in smart new restaurants, bars and lavish parks. L’Allier, 66, thinks the les X conservative revolt is anything but enlightened. “It is brutish,” he says. “What worries me most is there is nothing behind it, no vision, no culture, no project. It is more like cancerous cells, contaminating healthy organisms.”
Maybe that kind of view was to be expected from one of the old guard, a man of classical erudition, who was a Liberal cabinet minister in the 1970s and became a sovereignist following the collapse of the Meech Lake accord. But there’s sincere sadness in L’Allier’s words as he contemplates what has been—and what may come. “Quebec City is not very big, and the population is quite homogenous, so, yes, controversies tend to reverberate louder, and the public tends to mobilize faster here than in a large, complex city like Montreal,” he notes. “But the seeds of dissent and confrontation have been sown, and they seem to have found fertile soil. Who knows the future? Maybe the Quiet Revolution will have been just a brush fire—maybe, in the end, we will have done all that for nothing, I don’t know.”
I ask him if he is still a separatist. He chuckles and says, “Well, let’s say I am more like a dormant virus in that regard.” Left-wing nationalists have defined Quebec’s culture and politics since the sixties. But nowadays, many of them, like L’Allier, seem to be running for cover. *
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