“You need to know in your heart and soul what you want to do here”
– Jean-Marc Fournier and David Birnbaum on Governing Quebec
Quebec’s political culture is distinctive. A review of not-so-distant Canadian history will suggest as much — the constitutional angst of the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by the 1995 referendum. Yet there is a profound difference between knowing academic facts and encountering Quebec’s political culture first-hand.
One of the most important lessons we learned during our time in Quebec City was how complicated identity politics are in la belle province. Existential concerns regarding the future of Quebec’s unique language and culture were a common theme throughout our meetings with government officials. The central issues of identity, language, and culture make governing Quebec a distinctive political challenge, given the predominance of English in much of the rest of Canada, as well as the continued importance of immigration.
To learn more about what it means to govern the Quebec nation, we met with two members of the ruling Liberal party. First, we spoke with the Hon. Jean-Marc Fournier, the MNA representing the riding of Saint-Laurent. He is currently Government House Leader and Minister Minister responsible for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie. Second, we had the pleasure of meeting Mr. David Birnbaum, a backbench MNA representing the predominantly anglophone and Jewish riding of D’Arcy McGee.
The Hon. Jean-Marc Fournier
Mr. Fournier brought to our meeting a wealth of experience in Quebec politics. First elected to the National Assembly in 1994, Mr. Fournier has held a range of ministerial portfolios, including: Municipal Affairs; Sports and Recreation; Education; Access to Information and the Reform of Democratic Institutions; and Justice. He served as the interim leader for the Quebec Liberal Party in 2012 and 2013, and has also held the role of Chief Opposition Whip.
Mr. Fournier spoke to us about Quebec history, especially la revolution tranquille. According to Mr. Fournier, the rise of Quebec nationalism–whether ethnic or civic–created a divide between the Quebecois and francophones who live outside of Quebec. For Mr. Fournier, increased attention to French and francophone identity by provincial governments other than the National Assembly is good for federal unity. In Ontario, for example, enrollment in French immersion is increasing and the position of French Language Services Commissioner was recently created.
We left our meeting with Mr. Fournier with the sense that, from his perspective as the Minister responsible for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie, building bridges between Quebec and francophones living in other provinces is an essential part of governing Quebec.
Mr. David Birnbaum
Mr. Birnbaum brought a slightly different perspective, being an anglophone and a relatively new provincial politician. He won his riding of D’Arcy McGee for the first time in 2014. During his tenure has served as the Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier, and is currently working as the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education and Higher Education.
As pertaining to his PA portfolio, Mr. Birnbaum spoke about the importance of higher education, praising policies that encourage more Quebecers to pursue a post-secondary degree. He also commented on the need to develop policies to educate students about consent and reduce sexual assault on campus.
Mr. Birnbaum reflected on the passage of Bill 62, a controversial piece of government legislation that prohibits people accessing or providing social services to wear a face covering, such as a niqab. He is well-known to have been strongly opposed to the Parti Quebecois’ proposed Charter of Values. When the time came to vote on Bill 62, Mr. Birnbaum voted the party line – but made a point of standing slowly, something that garnered press attention. His response to us was very similar to that which he gave to the Montreal Gazette: the world isn’t perfect; Bill 62 isn’t perfect; yet, it strikes a good balance in a highly controversial policy area.
Before we left, Mr. Birnbaum offered some advice for how we, as people from outside Quebec, should approach Quebec politics, as well as a vision of the ideal parliamentarian.
That is, he advised us to reflect on Quebec’s unique political climate, in which the preservation of French language and culture is essential, before judging politicians for how they choose to govern.
An ideal parliamentarian, according to Birnbaum, is somebody who respects the political process, but also sees it as a means to an end, not as a game in and of itself. “You need to know in your heart and soul what you want to do here,” he concluded.