On a dreary Sunday afternoon about six years ago, I was in a room full of Quebec Liberals in a Montreal church basement for a riding association coffee-and-cake mixer. The mood was ebullient; for the first time in a decade, the party’s fortunes were looking up in the province.
This was due not only to Justin Trudeau, who bounded in halfway through to grin and glad-hand, but to the message his team had pressed into the minds of the partisans around me: in Quebec, the Liberal Party had changed. The days of pork barrel politics and greasy party power brokers, the vestiges of the party’s Quebec wing that gifted us the sponsorship scandal in the mid-aughts, were over. Sunshine and openness were in. More than one Liberal organizer poured the same syrup into my ear in the following weeks and months.
Clearly, it trickled down to Quebec voters. In 2015, just a decade after the party disappeared from Quebec’s political conversation in a burst of greed and avarice, the Liberals won a majority in the province.
It’s worth considering how hollow that message has rung in Quebec and beyond in the last few days. And as we sift through the news that Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts had allegedly pressed former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to go easy on Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin — and how Wilson-Raybould was demoted when she wouldn’t play ball — it’s also worth wondering whether we are in for a repeat of 2005. That is to say, the year in which Quebecers, through no fault of their own, found themselves humiliated on the national stage thanks to the Liberal Party of Canada.
First, the Coles Notes on the origins of said humiliation. In 1996, shortly after nearly losing the Quebec referendum on sovereignty, prime minister Jean Chrétien devised a plan to sell Quebecers on the virtues of Canada. “Sell” is the operative word; taxpayer money was used to buy billboard space, sponsor cultural events and otherwise drape Quebec’s TV and airwaves with swaths of Canadiana.
The businessmen who carried out this work, all good Liberals, vastly overcharged for their services, often without doing any work at all. A commission was struck to investigate, arrests were made and the Liberals were decimated in Quebec, the end.