Quebec Politics for Dummies: L’Affaire Turmel and the Media

Watching l’affaire Turmel unfold this week has been something of an eye opening experience. I’m not sure whether the national media really don’t understand Quebec politics, or are choosing to lie to Canadians.

Late last week Stephen Harper’s Conservative party released a memo   “revealing” that NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel had, for a brief period, held a membership in the Bloc Quebecois alongside her membership in the NDP, which she has held for over 20 years.

This Tuesday, the Globe and Mail ran with the story and the feeding frenzy was on. One national news source after another lined up to bemoan this dastardly, dastardly thing she had done.

No surprise that the Conservatives would pick up smearing the leader of the Official Opposition where they left off with Iggy. Nor that they would do so to a lifelong Federalist who has never voted Bloc and voted No in both referendums, when their cabinet, like the Liberals’ before them, boasts several real former sovereigntists and Bloc members. After all, the Conservatives’ constant attempts to turn Quebec and the Rest of Canada (RoC) against each other for political gain are the chief threat to national unity in our country.

What appalls me, if it does not surprise me, is that the national media, with nary an exception, would gleefully follow them down the rabbit hole. They did so for two reasons: complete ignorance of Quebec and how our politics work, and a desperate flailing to cut down the NDP and their new leader for the egregious crime of being Socially Progressive while Popular (SPP).

Former Bloquiste and sovereigntist, and now Conservative cabinet minister, Denis Lebel

Since facts have been given short shrift in this week’s coverage, allow me to recap them. Nycole Turmel has been a member of the NDP for over 20 years, holding several senior positions in the party in the 90’s. She voted No in the referendums of 1980 and 1995, and has never voted for the Bloc. Her crime is that, at the request of a close friend who was a Bloc MP, she took out a membership in the Bloc in 2006 and donated the paltry sum of $235 over the four years she was a member. During these years she remained a member of the NDP, and cancelled her Bloc membership in January of 2011. She was also, until hounded to renounce it this week, a member of Quebec Solidaire.

For the benefit of readers outside of Quebec, allow me to explain. Here in Quebec large numbers of federalists vote for and support the Bloc and Quebec Solidaire because they are progressive social democratic parties, which reflect their values.

Most national unions routinely endorsed the NDP in the RoC, while endorsing the Bloc in Quebec. This is because they saw the Bloc as the most viable progressive option when the NDP was not popular in Quebec, not out of an affinity for sovereignty.

Quebeckers of my generation have largely rejected the old sovereigntist-federalist axis and choose to organize themselves along ideological lines. The rise and fall of the ADQ and François Legault’s putative right wing formation are good examples, while the best example is in fact Quebec Solidaire.

While nominally sovereigntist, this grassroots driven party is composed of a fairly even mix of federalists and sovereigntists who agree that the priority is to address the growing inequalities in our society. I am a supporter, as are most of my Anglo and federalist friends.

Bloc co-founder, and later Liberal cabinet minister and Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre

In the last election the “sovereigntist” Quebec Solidaire chose to abandon the Bloc and throw their support behind the federalist NDP. They did so because their priority is progressive governance. Their co-leader, Amir Khadir, is a member of the NDP and attended the party’s recent convention in Vancouver. He was even quoted last year as saying “We are caught in the prison of the national question.”

QS local riding associations have come out en masse to support newly elected NDP MPs with weak ground organizations. In fact the party debated removing sovereignty from their constitution at their last convention, a proposal which was only narrowly defeated, and will certainly be revisited.

But how dare Nycole Turmel support QS, the only provincial party in Quebec whose policies are even close to those of the NDP?

Never mind that mere months ago Canadians across the country were fêting the NDP for succeeding in convincing progressive Quebeckers that they could achieve more through the NDP than the Bloc. Never mind how insulting it is to Quebeckers that anyone who has expressed any sort of support, however fleeting, for what was until this spring the most popular party in the province is a target for this type of character assassination. Never mind that this week’s events prove the point of hard-core sovereigntists, who argue that Canada will never understand or accept Quebec.

The question is, why is our national media lying to us? Why are they telling us that anyone who ever cast a glance at the Bloc, or any of their MPs, is a traitor who deserves to be branded with a scarlet B, and expelled from polite society?

I think that this week’s conniption fit in a teacup is no accident. It is a calculated attempt to take down the NDP, that much is obvious. But I think there is another element to it as well.

Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, who swore an oath to a sovereign Quebec when working for Bernard Landry

For years Quebeckers were distracted from the “social project” by their division along national lines. The shift to viewing politics along ideological lines, in a largely left wing province, is a threat to many vested interests.

This week’s firestorm will surely leave Quebeckers feeling insulted, and justly so. If our best and brightest federalists are judged unworthy by the rest of the country for no greater crime than the way Quebec politics work, then why bother trying to participate?

The RoC has spent years begging Quebec to give Canada a chance, to engage with the federation. As soon as we do so we are slapped across the face and told we are unworthy for our past thought crimes.

This mess will be bad for national unity, for the country and for all of us. But it will be good for the Conservatives and their agenda of division. Now remind me, who did all those national media outlets endorse in the last election?

Dear journos: Get your act together and do your job. Stop being so transparently partisan and hypocritical and tell Canadians the truth. Is that really so much to ask?

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  • “this week’s events prove the point of hard-core sovereigntists, who argue that Canada will never understand or accept Quebec”


    The revelation that Turmel held a Bloc party member card only improves her image here in Quebec. It suggests that while federalist-leaning, she nevertheless recognizes the legitimacy and resonance of the sovereignty discourse.

    And after all, this is precisely the spirit of the Sherbrooke Declaration – without which an Orange Wave in Quebec could never have been possible.

    Politicians trying to vilify Turmel because of her links to a sovereigntist party might score some points elsewhere in Canada, but the effect they will have in Quebec will be to solidify support for Turmel and the NDP.

  • Very true Q. Thanks for the comment!

  • Very enlightening – thank-you. Hmm… wasn’t the Bloc founded by a group of former Conservative Mulroney Cabinet Ministers?

  • I don’t really care what or where someone is now, the fact of the matter is that at one point she was part of the party which wanted to destroy Canada.

    It’s like saying, “I was part of the Taliban but I don’t agree with their views. Still, it put food on the table.”

  • Ethan, a brilliant summary for people outside Québec.

    I am not a Bloc supporter, but Mike, the Bloc never “wanted to destroy Canada”. At most, that political formation wanted a sovereign Québec. At worst, from your standpoint, they didn’t particularly care what happened to English-speaking Canada, but they certainly didn’t set out to destroy it.

    You might be surprised that some of us are far more interested in whether parties set out to destroy democracy, our social programmes and the environment itself (in a very real sense, the latter is “Canada”, non?) than in constitutional arrangements.

    The Taliban is a very odd analogy, given their rather backward views on women’s rights and other issues (though they are indigenous guerilla fighters, unsavoury as I find their views, not a mercenary army).

    As for the Bloc, yes Lucien Bouchard and others were Québec nationalist Tories, but very soon there was a “strange bedfellows” alliance with sovereignist social-democratic trade-unionists such as Gilles Duceppe, Oswaldo Nuñez, Francine Lalonde and Pierre Paquette. Most of the blue Tories have crept off since, leading the union and community group progressive Bloquistes.

  • @Lagatta Nice to see you again! Thanks for the kind words and excellent points! E-mail me if you ever feel like writing a piece for the site, I’d love to have it!

    @bryw thanks, glad you liked it!

    @Mike The point is that people voted for the Bloc as the progressive option. It had long since shelved any active work towards a referendum and had been concentrating on social policy and Quebec’s interests in Canada for ages.

    Think of it this way, you’re a left wing Quebecker, you hate the Cons and would never vote Liberal (sponsorship scandal, etc). Your options are the NDP (which prior to this election would have seemed like a wasted vote) or the Bloc, the only party capable of electing an MP who will represent your values.

    You know that sovereignty will never be decided in Ottawa so you vote Bloc, regardless of whether you’re a federalist, soft nationalist, etc.

  • People are finally starting to put the sovereigntist/federalist, Anglo/Franco Quebec/Canada debate behind them and shift the political dialogue to one of left versus right, community versus corporate and fair play versus oppression. This scares Harper, it probably scares the “Liberals” and it scares their champions in business and the media, like the editorial board of the G&M.

    It seems like their new strategy is attack Turmel by any means necessary and destroy balance in the NDP, taking as many lefty casualties as possible (like Quebec Solidaire) down with them.

    I hope it doesn’t work and I hope the shift to what really matters continues. For that to happen, though, we have to stop believing the corporate media spin.

  • First off, thank you Ethan!
    Secondly, Mrs Turmel was chosen by the NDP. Mr Layton recommended her, the caucus and then the party approved her. I myself, a Canadian, Québécois, francophone, maybe not left-winger but certainly left leaning, federalist, and NDP, am proud to have a bilingual woman, from Quebec, with union experience taking over (temporarily) for Mr Layton. I don’t really see what the problem is. So she had a card from the Bloc. Sorry but, BIG DEAL!
    Thirdly, thank you Ethan.

  • Sorry Ethan,
    But I totally disagree with your analogy of the Quebeck voter. First and foremost how a Quebecker votes depend on where he/she lives, how old they are, and what they’ve been taught about les maudit anglais and/or les autres. The BLOC has always been a separatist Party as witnessed this past election. Or did you miss Duceppe saying so over and over again? I don’t know where you live – but rest assured in the Greater Montreal area – it is extremely unlikely that any Federalist voted for the BLOC. The reason they have won so often is – because of the VOTE SPLIT – 4-6 Federal Parties compared to the BLOC and the way the ridings vs votes are set up.

    The reason the Liberals pretty much always won up until 1995 – is because the Greater Montreal Area – is almost always necessary to get a majority or opposition vote. Unfortunately since 1995 – the Liberals have been on a downward freefall – because they shut the Anglo & Allo voter out of the Party and started promoting the illegal language laws – with a vengeance. And had become so arrogant they pretty much spat in the faces of us les anglais & autres – when we demanded to know why they had broken their 20 year promise to abolish the language laws.

    For some insane reason – too many NDP’ers were under the very mistaken impression that Quebeckers want to have the NDP continue on the same path the BLOC has been spewing all these years. Believe me – has we wanted that we would have voted for the BLOC and not the NDP. We voted NDP because it was a perfect opportunity to RID OURSELVES of the Liberals and BLOC at the same time!

    Therefore, perhaps amongst your circle of friends – what you say has merit. But believe me – the VAST Majority of Quebeckers do NOT sit under the Quebecois umbrella and especially in the Greater Montreal Area – where the 2.5 Million English speaking Quebecker happens to live.

    And the interim leaders insulting comments saying in essence she is going to dedicate herself to the Quebecois “Rightful Place” which means more of the same lunacy about saving the French language in a sea of English coupled with the language laws – specifically designed to ERASE the English culture out of the Province… called ethnic cleansing throughout the free world; are NOT BEING accepted by the voters that gave the NDP opposition status. Not by a long shot. As for Eric’s being proud to have a ‘bilingual woman – from Quebec with union experience’… I agree. But this woman – is another one of the ‘pretend federalists’ we’ve had shoved down our throats for too many years and the only accomplishment they can claim is – their ‘form of federalism’ has turned our once Officially Bilingual Province – our once Richest Province in the country – our once best place to live in North America – into the only area in the modern world that has illegally legalized ethnic cleansing – has had 600,000 Quebeckers FLEE the anti anglo tyranny of the – that just like Hitler’s youth is taught in our schools – right alongside the total fiction about the Anglo Devil Employer and all the other grotesque lies: told so often that most Quebec youth assume it must be the truth. It is not the truth and the French language is not and never has been in danger – quite the contrary is the truth. And finally no sane person/government – would every justify erasing a language and thereby erase a culture, ever!!

    As for the ROC begging Quebeckers to give them a chance. Please – get real! The zeal from 1995 has long since worn off my friend and most of the ROC – doesn’t give a flying leap anymore – what the seppy nutbars have to say. 40 years of separatist threats has even me demanding to know what the hell they are still doing – here in OUR Canadian owned Province of Quebeck. Most of us can’t wait for the racist lunatics to LEAVE!! And just to let you know – Quebeck belongs to ALL Quebeckers and to ALL Canadians. IT DOES NOT belong to the language law disciple – discriminating yahoos – who consider themselves ‘true quebecois’.

    One final point: The Greater Montreal area – funds 69% of Quebeck’s revenue and we are beyond sick and tired of living without rights – freedom and equality. I strongly suggest you take the time to do some real homework – look for documented proof – before you speak for anyone other than yourself – and know – the days of language police illegally boot stomping throughout the greater Montreal area – terrorizing businesses into submission – are coming to an end. And please don’t bother arguing with the FACTS I’ve posted. You can try to prove me wrong… but you’ll need facts to do so – and to save you some time.. everything I write is backed up with TRUTH AND FACTS.

  • Forgive the typos…. should have checked…

  • How come the thumbs down doesn’t work? Maybe check that out – or people may think that like most media – the responses are rigged. :):)

  • @DidiM: 2.5 million English-speaking Quebeckers? Fact-check, please!

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