Ganging Up on PQ and Liberals

Language, Tuition and Separatism Hot Topics at Student Union-Hosted Debate

Photo Elysha del Giusto Enos

Following a well-developed party playbook, the answers came easily for the Parti Québécois and Liberal candidates at Thursday night’s English-language debate co-hosted by the Concordia Student Union.From the other politicians, there was a mix of note-checking and personal reactions which were more conversational than decisive.

The debate for the Westmount-St-Louis district was put on by student associations at Concordia, McGill and Dawson College, and included Montreal candidates from the Parti Québécois, the Liberal Party, the Green Party, Quebec Solidaire, Quebec Citizens’ Union, Coalition Avenir Québec, Option Nationale and the Marxist-Leninist party at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business.

The issue of tuition increases came early in the debate putting Liberal candidate Dave McMahon on the defensive. He said the increase was needed to tackle a $1 billion deficit and he noted that partnerships between private enterprise and universities may be one way to help the funding gap, but students paying more is needed too.

Taking aim at the Parti Québécois candidate and seasoned politician Thierry St-Cyr, McMahon said “To have a majority you need strong convictions.”

McMahon was criticizing PQ leader Pauline Marois’s flip-flopping on the issue of tuition, saying she supported the hike, then was against the hike, then announced that a summit was needed to discuss what to do.

Hecklers in the audience yelled at St-Cyr, “Where’s the money coming from for a summit?”

St-Cyr clarified “No, we said we’d cancel the hike and cancel the special law.”

The PQ candidate deflected attacks from the seven other representatives up until he had to leave, one hour into the three hour debate, to attend a final PQ party before the election.

On the topic of international students, and the fees they pay for school and health care, all the candidates agreed that university exchanges are important, but the substance behind that sentiment varied.

Fernand Deschamps from the Marxist-Leninist Party said that foreign students will always pay more than residents within a system that charges tuition fees. The Green Party candidate, Lisa Cahn, and Quebec Solidaire’s Mélissa Desjardins echoed each other’s stances on many subjects and free education on all levels was one of them.

“Our diversity is our richness,” McMahon added.

Experience Shows

The Liberal candidate was climbing the steepest hill as he argued the Liberal’s dedication to accessible education. But on the subject of foreign students he boasted Quebec’s partnerships with 500 universities around the world and that initiatives by the Liberals mean foreign students coming to Quebec to study will have easier access to immigration.

With a revised Bill 101 threatening to limit enrolment in English CEGEPs the way it has for English elementary and high schools, the topic of language quickly became heated among the eight candidates. Representatives were primarily francophones who were fluent in English, something candidates like Desjardins from Quebec Solidaire attributed to being able to attend the English CEGEP Dawson College.

Cahn, an Anglophone who attended the French school HEC Montréal accused the PQ of xenophobic attitudes in trying to expand Bill 101.

“Having the choice is important to our culture,” Cahn said.

Benoit Guérin from Option Nationale took the opportunity to calm fears that sovereignty, at least under his party, would infringe on the rights of Anglophones and Allophones.

“We want to make Anglophone heritage stronger,” Guérin said.

Within Anglophone and Allophone communities there is a fear that without Canada, Quebec will legislate their cultures out of existence. The expanded Bill 101 and the new secular charter put forward by the PQ banning civil servants from displaying religious symbols, except the crucifix, are among them.

McMahon said, “We will not extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs because we do not believe that CEGEPs turn Francophones into Anglophones. We believe they make bilingual people.”

The audience cheered and clapped following the Liberal candidate’s statement and the moderator had to ask such outbursts be kept in check so the debate could stay on schedule.

On the issue of separatism, although many of the parties include it as part of their platform, the politicians navigated their way through the debate in ways which made them all seem against it. Except Option Nationale, which asserted that of the numerous countries which have separated in recent years, none regret it.

Johnny Kairouz for the Coalition Avenir Québec, who began to look visibly bored when the debate entered its second hour, said, “I always voted for the Liberals, but now we have a better option. […] Legault was a sovereigntist, then he realized it wasn’t viable.”

McMahon countered, “If there is a referendum, will you be on the ‘No’ side with us?”

Kairouz said that the CAQ did not want a referendum, but couldn’t answer the question.

Notably absent from the debate was the issue of government corruption, something political analysts say is one of the reasons Charest called the election for September 4, two weeks before the Charbonneau Commission is set to resume September 17.