MONTREAL — Former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, 20, came prepared for tough questions about Quebec independence and identity, but the audience, made up mostly of people old enough to be his grandparents, were more interested in better health care and alleviating poverty.
The Parti Québécois (PQ) candidate, who was president of Quebec’s College Students Federation (FECQ) and a high-profile figure in the protest against a university tuition increase, joined the Coalition Avenir Québec’s (CAQ) Dominique Anglade and Liberal Lawrence Bergman in a panel discussion at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors on Aug. 21.
Bureau-Blouin avoided direct comment on the national question until someone asked who the “we” referred to in the PQ’s slogan “A nous de choisir.”
“‘We’ is, I think, everyone regardless of their language or where they come from or if they were born here or not,” he replied.
“Independent or not, Quebec will remain a land of freedom, a place that is open to everyone,” said Bureau-Blouin who is running in Laval-des-Rapides.
To him, sovereignty is about Quebecers “deciding for ourselves” how to make policy, spend money, and act on the international stage, without cutting economic ties with “the rest of Canada.”
Bergman and Anglade seemed bewildered by Bureau-Blouin’s assertion that Quebec is sending more money to Ottawa than it’s getting from the federal government.
The young would-be MNA accused the Liberals of using fear to win votes, and he recalled that CAQ leader François Legault, when he was a PQ cabinet, minister, said that Quebec “would be richer without Canada.”
What the PQ is offering is “hope for a better Quebec,” Bureau-Blouin said.
Bergman, who has represented D’Arcy McGee since 1994, received applause when he said that PQ leader Pauline Marois’ “charter of secularism” – which would forbid the wearing of religious symbols other than a small crucifix by civil servants – is not making everyone feel comfortable.
“Yes, we live in fear of facing another divisive referendum… Just the threat alone will hurt the economy.”
The choice before voters Sept. 4 is between “economic stability and instability with a referendum cloud over our heads,” Bergman said.
Turning to the CAQ, Bergman brought up Legault’s political past as well, saying that the PQ government in which he was health minister “closed seven hospitals” and “laid off 4,000 nurses and 1,500 doctors.”
In the nine years since the Liberals took office, 590 more family physicians have been added to the provincial total, Bergman said, promising that within three years there will be enough to ensure that every Quebecer has a doctor.
Anglade, a former director with the McKinsey & Company management consulting firm who is running in the Laval riding of Fabre, said the CAQ represents an alternative to “separation as the No. 1 priority or the status quo.”
Describing herself as a proud Quebecer and a proud Canadian, she said the CAQ will set aside the referendum issue in order “to fix things not working in this province,” the most pressing of which, to her mind, is the influence of collusion and corruption on government.
She argued that Quebec doesn’t need more doctors, but a reorganization of the health care system. This province has more family physicians per capita than Ontario, yet more Ontarians have access to a doctor than Quebecers, she said.
Quebec doctors should take on more patients and nurses should be doing more medical procedures, Anglade added. The number of clinics that group family physicians together should be increased to 800 from about 200 province-wide at present.
To improve Quebecers’ standard of living, Anglade said the key is encouraging entrepreneurship and cleaning up government. Quebecers now have the second-lowest household income, with only Prince Edward Islanders below them, she said. They were fourth-highest when the Liberals took power in 2003, she added.
Bureau-Blouin faced only one question on the student strike. An audience member asked what was unreasonable about requiring organizers of larger demonstrations to give police eight hours’ notice, a key point of Bill 78, which the government adopted in May to quell the unrest, or about a “modest” hike in tuition that would still leave Quebec among the cheapest places to go to university in North America.
Bureau-Blouin answered that studies have shown that any tuition increase results in a drop in enrolment, and that Quebec cannot afford to have fewer university-educated people if it is to stay economically competitive.
The government will eventually recoup what it spends on higher education through the taxes graduates will pay over their lifetime, he added.
He said he’s against providing additional information to police about planned demonstrations, because it represents an erosion of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
The event was organized in co-operation with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Federation CJA’s social advocacy committee.