Moments of crisis inevitably provide a revealing glimpse of a person’s true strength of character. Whatever else one may think of newly elected Quebec Premier Pauline Marois (and I’ve never been a fan of her personality, politics or leadership style), most people watching the live coverage of her victory speech September 4 had to be impressed by her steely composure and resolve after the shocking attack on the event by a deranged gunman.
While she wasn’t aware then that one of the two people shot by the man who would also set fire to the Metropolis nightclub had died, Marois must have realized that she had just narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet. Thus, her courage in returning to the stage to urge people to remain calm and exit the building in an orderly manner revealed a human trait that deserves respect.
Unfortunately, the television image during that unscripted instant of raw reality was marred by the inane paternalism of the event’s emcee, the marginal Quebec actor Yves Desgagnés. Trying to appear protective of Quebec’s new leader in a transparent attempt to steal a bit of the spotlight at a transfixing historical moment, he persisted in hugging Marois tightly under his arm as she spoke to the crowd of roughly 2000 supporters.
It was an awkward, embarrassingly display that Marois stoically endured without obvious annoyance. If she hadn’t performed as well as she did at this defining moment for her premiership, however, it could have seriously weakened the all-important initial public perception of her strength as a leader. The lasting impression would have been difficult to undo: one of a fragile female who needed the support and protection of a man to do her job. Desgagnés could have done Marois – and, by extension, all political women – lasting political damage in their ongoing struggle to be taken seriously in a system that is stacked against them.
Don’t forget: Pauline Marois is the first woman elected as premier of Quebec, a province that was the last jurisdiction, in 1940, to finally grant women the right to vote. Even in modern-day Quebec, there are still many people of both sexes who have difficulty accepting a woman as their superior. One wonders if this lingering bias played a role in the PQ’s extremely narrow victory in an otherwise favourable political context.
Certainly, the popular vote and seat count for the PQ had to have been disappointing, barely outpacing Jean Charest’s Liberals on either score despite his party’s corruption scandals and the stale odour of a government that was past its due date. Indeed, having vastly exceeded expectations, Charest gave a rousing concession speech despite the painful loss of his own riding of Sherbrooke. And until security guards rushed the premier-elect off the stage of the Metropolis in a jaw-dropping and confusing scene of drama, Marois sounded uninspired and almost defeated. The irony is that the incident ultimately gave her authority and purpose.
The instant credibility would be a shield the very next day as she signaled her intention to move quickly and forcefully to put her stamp on government policy. In her first announcement, she reversed the Liberals’ divisive university tuition hikes and said she would immediately repeal the repressive “Special Law” that gave police in Quebec vast power to stifle almost any public event with political message. Instead of the Liberals’ aggressive and nasty campaign against students and their parents, Marois also announced that she would call an Estates General for a calm and reasoned discussion on the future of the education system.
These moves are welcome and inspiring after the battles of the spring and summer. Other PQ policy planks will improve life here as well: a vastly expanded public daycare system to deal with the long waiting lists of desperate parents; increased royalties on mining companies that are granted immense wealth in the exploitation of public resources; and the elimination of a regressive tax on healthcare that cost the same amount whether you were rich or poor.
We will see if Marois continues to appeal to her party’s xenophobic hard core as she did with election campaign promises to forbid francophones from attending English-language Cegeps. Likewise, her party’s proposed “Charter of Secularism,” which would ban any displays of religious identity by public servants (except, of course for the Catholic cross that hangs over the National Assembly), would immediately enshrine government discrimination against religious minorities.
We will see. In the meantime, Marois has made a solid debut as Quebec premier, even before she has been officially sworn into power. Given her government’s minority status, she won’t have the freedom to run roughshod over people’s rights, nor trigger a third referendum on sovereignty. Her focus will be on providing good government with an eye on the next election. And for us, for now, that will be a welcome turnout after the turmoil of the past few years.