For over a decade, Quebec’s politics have been caught in the torment of so-called “populism.”

Speaking in the name of le peuple, politicians have turned to thinly veiled immigrant bashing to scare up votes. The Action démocratique du Québec’s (ADQ) Mario Dumont did it during the “reasonable accommodation” crisis. Pauline Marois’s Parti québécois (PQ) government did it during the charter of values debate. Now, Coalition Avenir du Québec (CAQ) leader François Legault is using the tactic as his party remains first in the polls.

The identitaire script is all too familiar. The fundamental values of Quebec society are in danger, we are told. Immigrants, especially Muslims, refuse to “integrate” (read: assimilate into the dominant culture) and are supposedly using the courts to impose their “backward” cultures and religious beliefs. The proposed solution is for the “majority” (read: white, francophone Quebecers) to stand up and defend itself against the elitist forces of multiculturalism and political correctness that hold it back.

All signs indicate that we will be hearing this monotonous script once again during the 2018 election, with the CAQ leading the charge. In an exclusive TVA interview that could set the tone for the campaign that begins today, François Legault vowed that a CAQ government would ban religious symbols for public employees within its first year in office.

The CAQ leader added that he would not hesitate to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to defend the move, if need be, saying, “It is possible the federal government will be opposed, but the Québécois people support it.”

Against accusations by Premier Philippe Couillard that such stances were feeding intolerance, Legault warned that the Liberal leader was “playing with fire, because what he is saying, in effect, is that the majority of Québécois are intolerant, because the position of the CAQ is supported by a large majority of Québécois.”

Polling has consistently shown since 2007 that reasonable accommodation ranks low on the list of priorities for Quebec voters, who keep hoping that the issue will just go away.

The identitaire playbook is often justified by saying it’s something that most Quebecers want to hear. Yet for all of the talk about respecting the will of the majority, polling consistently shows that the subjects of “reasonable accommodation” and religious symbols that have stalked Quebec politics for over a decade are generally unimportant to voters more concerned with health care, jobs, and the environment.

Far less reported on — and perhaps far more shocking — is the fact that polls show people in Quebec are profoundly fed up with this manufactured debate.

Popular distaste for the identitaire turn in Quebec politics was demonstrated most recently by an April 29-May 2 Ipsos-La Presse poll, conducted shortly before the CAQ released its “values test.” The survey found that over three-quarters (78 per cent) of Quebecers feel that too much time is spent in Quebec politics debating religious symbols and reasonable accommodations.

Those who are tired of this sterile debate are really tired of it. An impressive 40 per cent said they completely agreed with the statement, “We spend too much time discussing subjects related to religious symbols and reasonable accommodations,” while another 38 per cent somewhat agreed.

A closer look at the polls shows that support for restrictions on the rights of minorities is broad but very shallow.

Those less dissatisfied with the time spent debating reasonable accommodations and religious symbols, by contrast, did not feel nearly as strongly about the issue. Only six per cent said they completely disagreed that the debate took up too much time, while 16 per cent somewhat disagreed.

The survey, which was conducted using an online panel of over 2,000 adults, showed that even CAQ supporters were no exception to this trend — a surprising result considering how much emphasis François Legault and his team have put on the issue. Over 80 per cent of caquistes felt these debates take up too much political space, only slightly less than Liberals (84 per cent). This view was remarkably even in its distribution among voters, with little variation across age, sex, region, and income levels.

The only political and demographic groups that bucked the nearly uniform trend were among high school drop-outs and Parti québécois voters, both of which were significantly more likely to disagree with the statement (38 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively).

Identity politics not a priority for Quebecers

The results of the poll were not an aberration. Polling has consistently shown since 2007 that reasonable accommodation ranks low on the list of priorities for Quebec voters, who keep hoping that the issue will just go away.

In a February 2007 poll taken as the Bouchard-Taylor commission was being announced, Léger found that only 6 per cent of Quebecers selected reasonable accommodations as the most important issue of the campaign, ranking it sixth among a list of nine choices. The poll found that over three-quarters (77 per cent) of respondents chose health care, the environment, jobs and economic development, or the education system over reasonable accommodations as the most pressing campaign issue.

The federal-provincial fiscal imbalance, a woefully boring and technocratic issue that did not enjoy the same tsunami of media coverage, was chosen as the top issue by as many people (6 per cent) as the highly publicized “accommodements” crisis at its peak.

After the furor had subsided, a CROP poll conducted at the end of 2007 found that nearly one in three Quebecers (29 per cent) felt that what the province needed most in 2008 was an end to the reasonable accommodations debate. That was three-and-a-half times more than those who hoped 2008 would bring a Stanley Cup for the Montreal Canadiens (8 per cent). Only tax cuts ranked higher as the province’s greatest need in the coming year.

Alas, the Habs would not bring home the Cup that year, nor would the immigrant-stigmatizing debate go away. In March 2010, a trivial incident involving a niqab-wearing Egyptian woman attending a French class would relaunch the debate, with the Liberals fuelling the fire by quickly moving to pass a “burqa ban” in public services. A few years later, Pauline Marois’ PQ government would move to reclaim the identitaire ground staked out by the ADQ, which would later re-emerge as the CAQ.

Ever since the “reasonable accommodations” crisis of 2006-2007, identitaire themes have resonated in Quebec politics.

Elected in 2012 in the aftermath of the student strike, the minority PQ government quickly abandoned most of its progressive policies and instead pinned its political hopes on the divisive charter of values, which would ban public employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as kippahs, turbans, and hijabs. As the April 2014 elections approached, La Presse columnist Lysiane Gagnon remarked on the apparent success of the PQ’s racist political gambit:

The Machiavellian plan of the PQ strategists is working: Take a wedge issue that will remobilize your base of core supporters, play on the widespread negative feelings toward visible immigrants (Muslims especially) while pretending to serve the noble goals of secularism and gender equity, ride on the instinctive reactions of the ‘real people’ against the ‘disconnected elites’ and there you are.

Yet an Ipsos Reid-CTV News poll taken just weeks before the vote found that just 4 per cent of Quebecers believed the implementation of the proposed charter should be the number-one priority for the next government. Far more voters (28 per cent) said the next government’s agenda should focus on creating a better economy and more jobs, followed by providing better health care (17 per cent), debt repayment and balancing the budget (12 per cent), and lowering taxes (11 per cent). Ensuring integrity in government and its leaders (9 per cent) and fighting corruption (6 per cent) were also higher up the list of priorities.

“There’s a discrepancy there,” remarked Luc Durand, president of Ipsos Reid Quebec, to CTV News at the time. “As much as the talk of the election has been about the referendum, integrity and the charter of values . . . what the citizens have in mind for what the government should be doing is quite far from what the candidates have spoken to us about.”

Léger polls during the 2014 campaign found a similar gulf between popular priorities and those of politicians and the media. Only 7 per cent said that adopting the charter should be one of the Marois government’s priorities, ranking the issue as a lowly 10th-most important in an August 2013 survey. A January 2014 poll showed that only 10 per cent of voters said that the charter would affect their choice in the election, with respondents split evenly between pro- and anti-charter parties. As the campaign drew to a close, nearly two-thirds of voters (63 per cent) said in a March 2014 poll that they wanted to hear less about the charter.

Post-election analyses confirmed that the issue was not the priority for most Quebecers. A Léger survey, conducted by political scientists Éric Bélanger and Valérie Mahéo a week after the 2014 election, found that less than one in 10 respondents (9 per cent) ranked the charter of values as the most important issue for them personally, a distant sixth place in terms of priorities out of a list of 10 possible choices.

This election will be no different

Ever since the “reasonable accommodations” crisis of 2006-2007, identitaire themes have resonated in Quebec politics. So far, 2018 has proven to be no exception. The pre-electoral period has abounded with promises to rip up Bill 62, ban hijab-wearing police officers, legislate a “real” secularism bill, and force immigrants to take a “values” test — all justified in the name of upholding the will of the majority. The official campaign, kicking off today, will likely maintain and intensify this focus on religious symbols and immigration.

But the divide over identitaire issues is not where many think it is. Rather than a conflict between a “multicultural elite ensconced in Montreal” and a “uniformly racist, xenophobic peuple” in the rest of the province, the real divide is between a political class of journalists, columnists, and politicians who have incessantly revived an exhausted and dishonest debate with fresh “incidents” and “affairs” and the rest of the population that would much rather move on to something else.

The identitaire turn is more accurately described as a cultural war waged by conservatives under the banner of populism. There is no doubt that a significant undercurrent of racism and xenophobia exists among the Quebec public. But a closer look at the polls shows that support for restrictions on the rights of minorities is broad but very shallow.