5 reasons to pay attention to the Quebec election

When the Quebec election was called at the beginning of August, it was in the shadow of protests by students caught in their own war over tuition, and allegations of corruption in the construction industry.

Economic storm clouds also hung over the province, and while they haven't cleared, the tuition fight and corruption allegations have not consumed the headlines as much as expected in the somewhat unusual, for Quebec, three-way race between Jean Charest's embattled Liberals, Pauline Marois's aspiring Parti Québécois and François Legault's upstart Coalition Avenir Québec.

It has been a campaign with no little confusion: Where exactly does Legault, a former PQ member, stand on Quebec sovereignty? Just how — and when — might a referendum unfold under Marois? And how would the parties pay for all their economic promises?

Those questions may not just be on the minds of Quebec voters marking their ballots Tuesday, they could also resonate across Canada.

"Quebec elections are different from those in other provinces in one important respect: they are the only ones in which the future of the country is at stake," author L. Ian MacDonald wrote in the Montreal Gazette on Aug. 28.

Here's a look at five ways the Quebec election should be of interest to the rest of Canada.

The sovereignty question

"Quebecers don't want a referendum on sovereignty," says CBC's Bernard St-Laurent.

"That doesn't mean they would vote against secession. But they would rather not have to deal with the issue in the first place."

Still, if the PQ gains power and the sovereignty queston gets pushed to the fore, there is the potential for that discussion to wake up the debate outside Quebec.

Times have changed since Canadians outside the province packed buses bound for Montreal, determined to convince Quebecers to vote Non in the 1995 referendum.

"There is little stomach anymore among the Canadian population outside this province to placate Quebec nationalists with further jurisdictional concessions and fiscal payoffs," the Montreal Gazette noted in an editorial on Aug. 27.

That lack of stomach could bring a showdown on quicker than expected, and perhaps make it difficult on those who will want to play for time to let emotions cool and to keep the country together.

The economy question

Quebec's fiscal picture is pretty gloomy. It is weighed down by $184 billion in debt, crumbling infrastructure and little sense that the province's fiscal future will get much better soon.

The Conference Board of Canada projects growth of just 1.4 per for 2012, "one of the weakest performances in the country and much weaker than Ontario's."

The board says the Quebec economy is feeling the burden of weakening global economic growth and the heavier personal fiscal burden on Quebecers.

Whoever ends up leading the province after Sept. 4 will have to make some hard decisions.

All the parties propose a balanced budget by 2013-14 but they also have their individual billion-dollar funds for everything from natural resources to finding ways to avert foreign takeovers.

How this would all work isn't entirely clear. But a minority government or a radical change in direction could end up affecting the national economy.

And some of the protectionist and anti-takeover plans being proposed could also jeopardize the Harper government's free-trade plans with Europe and the Pacific Rim.

The tuition question

For months this spring, Quebec students flooded the streets, banged pots and pans and found support from labour unions in their fight against the tuition hikes proposed by Charest's government.

They were the reason, Charest said, that he called the election when he did, ostensibly before classes were set to resume.

"In the last few months we've heard a lot from a number of student leaders. We've heard from people in the street. We've heard from those who have been hitting away at pots and pans. Now is the time for the silent majority."

Outside Quebec, the root cause of the protest may ring a little hollow — after all, even if the Liberals' proposed increases came to pass, students would still be paying far less than the national average for post-secondary tuition.

The Liberals are looking for an 80 per cent increase, which would come in increments of $254 a year for seven years. The CAQ is proposing an increase of $200 per year over five years. The PQ platform proposes eliminating the Liberal increase, but Marois has since said modest fee increases would be indexed to the cost of living.

The question remains, however: just who is going to resolve the tuition crisis, and how?

If Quebec students ultimately get even some of what they want, to what extent would the result embolden students elsewhere in Canada, many of whom are reported to be drowning in student debt?

The identity question

The PQ platform includes plans for a formalized Quebec citizenship, which might bring it into conflict with Canadian citizenship, as well as a secular charter that would ban civil servants from wearing "overt" religious symbols such as the hijab or a yarmulke. (A crucifix would be fine provided it's not too showy as it is considered part of Quebec's cultural heritage.)

"Add those commitments to the promise to prevent francophones and allophones from attending English CEGEPS, and [the PQ's] proposal to force businesses with more than 11 employees to function in French, and no one will doubt who the PQ is courting," says the CBC's St-Laurent.

But apart from the legalistic and Charter of Rights challenges that some of these proposals would unleash, they could also set a national precedent and spark a debate over multiculturalism and minority accommodation across the country that few want.

The language question

The PQ's proposed new and more restrictive Charter of the French Language could be a risky move, suggests St-Laurent.

But it is not the only party that has plunged into the murky language waters.

Charest has said he wants the French-language rules in Bill 101 to apply to federal institutions to help "promote and protect the French language and culture." But, he hastened to add, he wouldn't actually amend the law.

The CAQ's Legault has said he wouldn't strengthen Bill 101 but because of how much English is spoken in business in Montreal, he would ensure it's fully enforced.

The focus on language inevitably raises the question of just how comfortable those whose first language is not French would continue to feel in a province where its protection grows.

Would there be another Anglo or allophone exodus, as there was in the 1970s when the PQ first came to power?

It seems unlikely but media reports in Montreal suggest the real estate market may be feeling the effects of election apprehension, with people in English-speaking areas holding off on offers for a new house until after Sept. 4.

Minority language rights have always been a delicate balancing act at government, business and school board levels right across the country. If Quebec does move to strengthen its language laws, that would almost certainly have a ripple effect elsewhere.

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