Quebec Is Shedding Image as Hotbed of Political Rest

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Apr 3 18:57:37 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

April 3, 2005

Quebec Is Shedding Image as Hotbed of Political Rest


MONTREAL, March 30 - The scene on fashionable Rue St.-Denis looked as if
it came out of another era: hundreds of students staging a sit-in in front
of a Liberal Party office and blocking rush hour traffic on a Tuesday
afternoon. Red and black banners flapped as fists pumped in the air. The
police surrounded the students in their patrol cars. Drivers appeared to
patiently accept their inconvenience by not honking.  People enjoying the
dazzling spring afternoon at outdoor cafes clapped and joined in the
chants of protest against cuts in student aid.

The demonstration and the signs of popular support were among a number of
indications that Quebec's political life, a life that has been relatively
quiet for a decade, is becoming vibrant and chaotic again. The targets of
this public disenchantment are both the provincial and federal Liberal
governments, which have been tarnished by scandal and by stalled attempts
at policy reform. While the rest of Canada appears bored with politics and
nonchalant about the weakest federal government in a generation, politics
in predominately French-speaking Quebec are percolating more powerfully
than at any time since the last separatist referendum in 1995, which lost
by a narrow margin.

"It is a really special moment," said Julie Ouellet, 22, one of the
demonstrators, who is studying sociology at the University of Quebec at
Montreal. Suggesting that the narrow objectives of the sit-in had deeper,
more radical possibilities, she added: "The cultural revolution can come
when people begin asking what kind of society we want. Right now, the
government is thinking of nothing other than money." More than 170,000
college students in Quebec have been on strike for the last month, in the
largest student mobilization here since the 1960's, when social revolution
and separatism were in the air.  Now, students are demanding that the
provincial government reverse a plan to transform $80 million of student
grants into loans. There have been dozens of arrests and sporadic

College teachers, pressing their own contract demands, went on a half-day
strike this week and are threatening more job actions. Elementary teachers
and provincial government workers say they will take action to increase
wages, unions are pressing to organize Wal-Mart Stores and even the
musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra are performing in T-shirts as
part of their bid for a new contract. And while workers and students are
mobilizing, a federal investigative commission holding televised hearings
here has stirred public rage with revelations over the last month of
almost unbelievable waste in the supposed cause of thwarting Quebec
separatism - like paying huge commissions to advertising agencies close to
the Liberal Party for designing golf balls as well as paying for box seats
to Ottawa Senators hockey games and Neil Diamond and Shania Twain concerts
for political allies.

The developments, though not all connected, are strengthening the parties
that want to promote Quebec's separation from the rest of Canada. Jean
Charest, the Liberal leader of Quebec, whose government was elected two
years ago, has been forced to retreat from plans to slash spending and
taxes. His policies raising rates for day care and proposals for curbing
government wages and cutting social benefits have fueled powerful
resistance - and failed to inspire supporters to come to his aid. One
recent poll showed his disapproval rating at 70 percent.

A loss to separatists by Mr. Charest's Liberals in the next provincial
election, expected in three years, could set the stage for a third
referendum on sovereignty, and recent polls suggest the result could be
close again. The unrest here could more immediately affect national
politics. Prime Minister Paul Martin, also a Liberal, faces the
probability that his party will be swamped here by the separatist Bloc
Qubcois should he lose a confidence vote in Parliament and need to go to
the polls in a snap election before the end of the year. A big loss in
Quebec would make it doubtful that Mr. Martin could ever win back the
majority in the House of Commons that his party lost last June. The
Liberals, who only won 21 of Quebec's 75 seats then, could lose even more

Scandal erupted around the Liberal Party last year, after revelations that
the federal government tried to increase its presence in Quebec after the
close 1995 separatist referendum, through wasteful spending for sponsoring
sports and cultural events. Funds appear to have been siphoned off to
influential individuals during the government of Mr. Martin's Liberal
predecessor, Jean Chrtien. As much as $80 million went to advertising
firms allied with the Liberal Party for little or no work; some of that
money may well have been funneled into Liberal coffers, according to
recent testimony. An investigative commission led by Justice John Gomery,
which started its work a year ago, has been holding televised hearings in
Montreal over the last several weeks, drawing out a litany of private
greed and government waste. The province has paid rapt attention;
French-language news channels reported a tripling of ratings and added new
programming to cover the inquiry into the money flow.

According to recent testimony, an advertising agency owner who is a large
donor to the Liberal Party received federal contracts, from which he paid
himself, his wife and two children salaries of millions of dollars. While
his firm double-billed Ottawa for work on a stamp promotion campaign, the
owner, Jean Lafleur, tried to claim a $1,000 fishing rod, bought as a
gift, as a business expense incurred on the government's behalf.

In his testimony in Montreal, Mr. Lafleur said he could not remember who
his fishing companion was. But in previous testimony, he disclosed that he
had gone on fishing trips with a former federal justice minister as well
as a senior government bureaucrat who was in charge of the controversial
sponsorship program. "Gomery is just the tip of the iceberg," said Michel
C. Auger, a columnist for Le Journal de Montral, a local daily. "The
iceberg is, politics are not working anymore."

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