Monday, March 05, 2007

Northern Exposure: A Stunning Collapse of Support for Pro-Independence Party in Quebec

Homophobia Erupts As a Major Issue in March 26 Provincial Election After Radio 'Shock Jock' Brands Openly Gay Leader of Parti Quebecois a 'Faggot' On the Air

By Skeeter Sanders

Provincial elections in Canada don't usually draw a lot of nationwide media attention in the "Great White North" -- let alone publicity in the United States. But Quebec is an exception.

When the pro-independence Parti Quebecois scored a then-stunning upset victory in the French-speaking province's 1976 election, it sent shockwaves all across North America -- drawing as many front-page banner headlines from Boston to Los Angeles as from Halifax to Vancouver. Politics north of the 49th Parallel have not been the same since.

Every subsequent Quebec general election -- and especially its two independence referendums in 1980 and 1995 -- has been cast by the national media on both sides of the border as a struggle between those who want to keep Quebec as an integral part of Canada and those who want Quebec to be an independent country.

Historically, the struggle has pit Quebec's French-speaking majority against its English-speaking and immigrant minorities, as well as with French-speaking Quebecers who remain fiercely loyal to Canada.

This year, however, as Quebecers prepare to go to the polls to elect a new provincial government on March 26, the old divide between the pro-independence "sovereigntists" and the pro-Canada "federalists" has gone by the wayside -- big time.

Top Issue This Time: Is Quebec Ready For a Young, Inexperienced -- and Openly Gay -- Premier?

In a stunning development that no one who follows Quebec politics could have foreseen, the pro-independence Parti Quebecois is in danger of suffering its worst-ever electoral defeat -- despite the fact that the incumbent Liberal Party government of Premier Jean Charest is unpopular.

The reason: The PQ's leader, Andre Boisclair, is even more deeply unpopular than Charest.

Boisclair was elected party leader in 2005 to succeed former Premier Bernard Landry, despite his highly-publicized admission that he used cocaine while a minister in Landry's government.

Boisclair, who will turn 41 on April 14, is the second-youngest person ever to lead a major political party in Quebec. Mario Dumont, leader of the conservative Parti Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), is the youngest, at 36.

Boisclair is also openly gay -- a fact that has suddenly became a red-hot issue in a province long known as Canada's most gay-friendly.

He joined the PQ in 1984 and was elected to the National Assembly, as the Quebec legislature is officially known, in 1989 at the age of 23 -- the youngest person ever elected to that body -- representing a Montreal-area district.

But Boisclair, who came out of the closet shortly after his election, also quickly garnered a reputation as a party animal in Quebec City's gay night-life scene.

He served as a cabinet minister from 1998 to 2003, under Premier Landry and his predecessor, Lucien Bouchard, holding a variety of high-profile portfolios, including citizenship and immigration; social solidarity; and the environment.

Boisclair Dragged Into Drug Scandal, Admits Using Cocaine

During his time as a cabinet minister, Boisclair and his chief of staff, Luc Doray, became the center of a drug-and-embezzlement scandal. After a routine audit, officials discovered that Doray submitted over $30,000 ($25,400 U.S.) in false expense reports and authorities later discovered that Doray had used the money to feed his cocaine habit.

Doray pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and during court testimony, it was learned that Boisclair authorized some of the expenses. The ensuing investigation cleared Boisclair of any wrongdoing; he was never accused nor charged with any crime.

However, in September 2005 -- 13 months after he resigned his National Assembly seat to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University -- a tearful Boisclair admitted that he also used cocaine during his government tenure (Boisclair earned a Master's degree in public administration at Harvard, despite having dropped out of the Université de Montréal and never earning an undergraduate Bachelor's degree).

Quebec's "Comeback Kid" Wins PQ Leadership

After Premier Landry resigned in June 2005, Boisclair entered the race to succeed him as the PQ's leader. In a stunning and historic victory, Boisclair was elected as the sixth leader of the PQ the following November, becoming the first openly gay person to head a major political party anywhere in North America.

Commentators immediately dubbed Boisclair "Quebec's Comeback Kid," comparing Boisclair's comeback to that of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who won back the governor's mansion in Arkansas in 1982 after losing his re-election bid two years earlier and who captured the Democratic Party's presidential nomination a decade later despite losing the all-important Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Boisclair and his party were on Cloud Nine: Polls taken at the time of his leadership victory suggested that the PQ would win a landslide electoral victory over Charest's Liberals.

PQ Leader's Style Under Attack From "Old Guard"

But since taking over, Boisclair's leadership style has come under mounting attack from longtime PQ stalwarts, including former premiers Landry, Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau.

It didn't help when Boisclair became embroiled in a new controversy last fall over his appearance in a comedy sketch in Montreal -- a spoof of the movie "Brokeback Mountain" -- that featured a depiction of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President George W. Bush in a compromising sexual position.

But what's really riled the PQ's old guard the most was Boisclair's recent attempt to distance the PQ from its traditional union base. The Parti Quebecois, for all of its nationalism, nonetheless has always more closely resembled Britain's Labor Party, with blue-collar union workers forming the backbone of its electoral base.

Boisclair's move to steer the party away from its blue-collar base triggered a revolt against him by the PQ's old guard, led by Landry. The old guard's attempt to oust Boisclair failed, but the resulting split within the party has led to a steady erosion of support for the PQ among sovereigntist-leaning voters.

Even in the staunchly pro-independence bastion of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, Boisclair isn't seen as premier material, according to pollster Jean-Marc Leger.

"People can't identify with Andre Boisclair -- that's the root of the problem," Leger said. "It's difficult for people to stick an image, an accomplishment, an idea or a theme to Andre Boisclair." After he became PQ leader, "the Liberals managed to define him before he was able to define himself," Leger said. "They talked of a young person who was immature, not ready to govern."

The label stuck.

A Party Deeply Divided -- And Plunging in the Polls

In the latest Leger & Leger Poll, which asked respondents which party leader would make the best premier, Boisclair did not come first in any of the 13 regions surveyed. During the very brief honeymoon after Boisclair was elected party leader, the PQ's popularity reached 50 per cent. It has since plummeted to 29 per cent.

"The trend has been systematic -- Andre Boisclair's leadership has been catastrophic for the PQ" Leger said.

In the new poll, the incumbent Charest was chosen best-suited to be premier, with 30 percent support among the 3,101 Quebecers polled. Close behind, with 26 per cent, was the ADQ's Dumont. Boisclair trailed far behind, with 19 per cent. "He's dragging down the party," said Leger.

Even many longtime pro-independence voters have turned their backs on Boisclair, according to Leger, with a third of sovereignists declaring that they won't support the PQ this time around. "That's the highest rate [of sovereigntist defections] I have ever seen," said the pollster.

The Leger & Leger Poll also showed a surge of support for Dumont's conservative ADQ, which Leger projects could win as many as 20 of the single-chamber National Assembly's 125 seats -- much of it at the PQ's expense. Even a rival sovereigntist party, the more left-leaning Quebec Solidaire, has drawn support away from the PQ, according to Leger.

Radio "Shock Jock" Brands Boisclair a "Faggot" -- and Outs a Local PQ Candidate

Against that backdrop, the campaign was suddenly and dramatically thrown into turmoil last Thursday when Boisclair's homosexuality became a front-and-center issue.

A French-language radio "shock jock" blasted Boisclair on the air, declaring that he won't vote for a "tapette" ("faggot") and condemned the PQ as a "club des tapettes" ("faggots' club").

While conducting an interview Tuesday with a local PQ candidate, "shock jock" Louis Champagne of CKRS Radio in the pro-independence heartland of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, said that Boisclair's homosexuality "might be accepted by intellectuals in Montreal who push pencils, but your average hardhat worker in the big Alcan plant out here is not going to vote for a faggot -- I know I'm not!"

But Champagne wasn't finished. "When you show up with another homosexual, listen, aren't you going to face the question, 'Is the Parti Quebecois a club of fags?' " Champagne asked PQ candidate Sylvain Gaudreault in French -- effectively outing him on the air.

Outed Candidate Blasts Back

Gaudreault was livid. In a subsequent press conference last Wesdnesday, Gaudreault acknowledged that he is gay -- and blasted back at Champagne.

"Contrary to what some people think, I don't believe factory workers will be scared to vote for me," he said. "I find Louis Champagne's remarks totally contemptuous toward factory workers. I really don't understand why these workers wouldn't want to vote for Sylvain Gaudreault."

Gilbert Cerat, a spokesman for station-owner Corus Quebec, said company officials will review the matter but any decision would wait until next week. "It's worth evaluating, to see exactly what he said," Cerat told The Canadian Press. Champagne could not be reached for comment.

Champagne, the dean of Quebec's French-language "shock radio" hosts, has a long history of complaints from listeners to Canada's broadcast regulator over coarse and vulgar language and personal attacks on the air -- antics that would make America's most notorious "shock jock," Howard Stern, downright polite by comparison.

He's one of the last "shock jocks" who have been in vogue in the province in recent years, but who have been shut down in hails of controversy, lawsuits and anti-defamation rulings by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Charest, Duceppe Denounce Anti-Gay "Hysteria"

A visibly angry Boisclair, when asked by reporters Thursday if homophobia was a problem for his struggling campaign, declared flatly that it's up to Quebecers to decide on March 26 whether his homosexuality is an issue worthy of consideration. "I know Quebecers stand for equality and freedom. If there are people who want to fight that issue in this election campaign, it won't be me they'll have to answer to. It's millions of Quebecers who expect more justice in Quebec."

For his part, Premier Charest condemned Champagne's anti-gay remarks and called on everyone involved in the election to avoid attacks on candidates' personal lives. Charest made his comments unprompted during a Friday press conference at a hotel in Montreal.

"I want all of us to focus on the campaign, on ideas, and on the choice we are going to make together on the 26th of March. I really believe that is what the citizens of Quebec want," he said. "And I'm speaking here not as the leader of the Liberal Party, but as the premier of Quebec."

In Ottawa, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the pro-independence Bloc Quebecois in the Canadian federal parliament, also denounced Champagne's anti-gay attack on Boisclair, declaring that "Quebecers are past the days when there was discrimination against homosexuals."

Duceppe, whose parliamentary district includes Montreal's Gay Village, led his party to vote in favor of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage across Canada and to subsequently defeat a move by Prime Minister Harper's Conservative Party to repeal the law.

Election Will Be "A True Test of How Progressive Quebec Really Is"

Rene Perron, a gay Montreal resident who is a longtime observer of Quebec politics, noted that Boisclair's 2005 election as PQ leader "was hailed as a signal that homophobia was truly on the decline in Quebec."

But Boisclair's relative youth and progressive image, which Perron described as "urban and modern," are slowly playing against him among "the more narrow-minded Quebecers [who are] mostly rural and conservative [and are] are often provoked by shock-radio announcers" and commentators in what Perron called "the trash media" -- Quebec's notorious scandal tabloids.

The March 26 election "will be a true test to see just how progressive and enlightened Quebec really is," said Perron. "Boisclair is trying to repair the [damage caused by his] errors of the past while [at the same time] trying to build himself a reputation of a strong leader. But it may be too late -- there's a lot of backstabbing going on in the PQ right now."

And because of this "backstabbing" -- combined with pre-election polls showing a record-low 20 percent of Quebecers listing the province's independence as their top priority -- the party that has been a major force in Quebec and Canadian politics for nearly 40 years could be on the threshold of suffering its worst-ever defeat in a truly watershed election.

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Volume II, Number 13
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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