The last thing Philippe Couillard needed was a technical foul-up by Statistics Canada to sow yet more existential angst among his province's dwindling anglophone population. The Quebec Liberal Premier has spent recent months trying to rebuild bridges to a community that has become progressively fed up with his party's seeming indifference toward its survivalist concerns.
For a fleeting moment this month, it looked like Quebec anglos were experiencing a sudden reprieve when StatsCan reported a spike in the number of English-speaking Quebeckers in the latest census. After the error was discovered and the correct numbers revealed – showing the proportion of mother-tongue anglophones had indeed slipped again between 2011 and 2016 – it only added to an already morose mood among anglo leaders that has put the Premier on the defensive.
With barely a year to go before the next provincial election, Mr. Couillard is looking vulnerable, in part because of anglo antipathy. A much-improved economy notwithstanding, poll after poll shows the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec moving into first place in the polls among francophone voters, while non-francophone voters are increasingly defecting from the Liberals. With the Parti Québécois in the dumps and no independence referendums on the horizon, anglophone voters no longer feel hostage to the Liberals and may even seek to punish them in the 2018 election.
It wouldn't be the first time. In 1976, when mother-tongue anglophones made up a loud-and-proud 13 per cent of the Quebec population, enough of them turned their back on Robert Bourassa's Liberals (upset over his government's declaration of French as Quebec's sole official language) to help elect the first PQ government. Traumatized by that mistake, anglophones who did not flee the province voted Liberal in near unanimous numbers in 1981 and 1985.
Mr. Bourassa's decision to invoke the Canadian Constitution's notwithstanding clause to uphold the former PQ government's ban on English-language signs provoked another anglo boycott of the Liberals in 1989. It was a safer calculation, given the PQ's troubles then. The Liberals were still handily re-elected and, after losing anglo support, Mr. Bourassa made amends by changing the language law to allow English on commercial signs as long as French remained predominant.
Now down to an often voiceless 7.5 per cent of the population, Quebec's mother-tongue anglos are once again feeling forsaken by the Liberals. A 2015 plan to abolish school boards was greeted with alarm by anglophone leaders. Already threatened by enrolment levels that have declined twice as fast as at French-language boards, the proposal to abolish one of the last major institutions that Quebec anglophones control was seen as an assault on their constitutional rights. Mr. Couillard abandoned the plan, but mostly because of a backlash among francophone boards.
Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who has earned a bull-in-a-china-shop reputation among health professionals, has particularly alienated anglophone leaders with reforms that they say weaken community control over hospitals such as the McGill University Health Centre. Ten members of the MUHC's 19-person board resigned last month to protest Mr. Barrette's heavy-handedness.
The Liberals further irked anglos this month when the party's youth wing rejected a proposal from anglophone members calling for a pilot project that would allow a limited number of francophone children to attend English elementary schools, many of which are faced with closing unless they attract new students. Mr. Couillard was relieved to see the proposition fail, since it would have opened a Pandora's box he is eager to keep shut. But the proposal's overwhelming rejection reinforced impressions that the Liberals do not take anglophone concerns that seriously.
To be sure, the gripes of Quebec's anglophones don't get much sympathy in the francophone media, either. Le Devoir columnist Michel David calls them "the best-cared-for minority in the world" with a long list of historical entitlements and institutions that make them look spoiled compared to francophones outside Quebec. And while some of those institutions may be in decline, English itself is not. It remains the default language of Quebec business and the one that even immigrants who attend French-language schools are often likely to gravitate towards as adults.
Still, Mr. Couillard knows he has some work to do if he is to count on anglophone voters to turn out for the Liberals in the next election in anywhere near the numbers they did in 2014, when the PQ was a contender. Otherwise, he may learn the hard way just where the wrath of anglos scorned might leave him.