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CETA and the next Quebec election (in June?)

As Brent Patterson, political director with the Council of Canadians, pointed out recently, there’s speculation that Jean Charest, Quebec’s embattled premier, could call an election very soon, even amidst ongoing public demonstrations against proposed tuition hikes and the Liberal party’s overall economic agenda for the province (see the Manifesto for a Maple Spring at Rabble.ca). Charest could seek a new mandate on his response to the student protests, which are into their 12th week, and his plan to develop the north of the province for resource extraction — two issues which, combined with the Liberal predilection for privatization, drew a 250,000-strong crowd to the streets of Montreal this Earth Day.

Another interrelated issue could end up on the election battlefield, which some predict as early as this June. Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois, raised concerns about the Canada-EU free trade negotiations in an April 19 speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations (CORIM). According to an article in Le Devoir, Marois is especially concerned about the capacity of the Quebec government and municipalities to favour local firms or include clauses to hire local workers on public contracts.

Marois also talked favourably about Quebec’s agricultural policies, including supply management for dairy and other sectors, implying she would be weary of a trade deal that removed the government’s capacity to undermine the province’s food sovereignty. («On a en matière d’agriculture aussi des institutions qui sont très importantes et qui ont donné des résultats positifs pour le Québec et pour le développement de notre agriculture. Comme nous voulons nous doter d’une politique de souveraineté alimentaire, nous voulons pouvoir avoir des pouvoirs sur certaines décisions que nous pourrions prendre dans ce domaine».)

Marois’ speech did make clear that the PQ “are in favour of free trade,” but added “we are worried about the lack of transparency from the Canadian and Quebec governments,” and that most of the information they have received as official opposition has come from the EU, business groups, unions and reports from the Institute for Research on the Contemporary Economics.

Other Quebec politicians, including from the PQ, have been more outspoken. Amir Khadir (Mercier), Louise Beaudoin (Rosemont), Lisette Lapointe (Crémazie) and Pierre Curzi (Borduas) held a multi-party press conference in December to comment on a public hearing on the CETA talks by Quebec’s chief negotiator Pierre Marc Johnson. Khadir said free trade deals over the past 30 years have only benefited a minority, proven by how purchasing power has stagnated for the middle class and dropped for the poor while GDP has grown in Canada. “Actually existing globalization has been a failure,” he told the media. “We need a globalization founded on the needs of populations, fair trade policy and a better redistribution of wealth.” (My translation.)

Sounds a lot like what the Maple Manifesto is asking for. A Quebec election fought even partially on CETA could prove complicated for the Liberal premier. The fate of the agreement might even be in question if on election day, the man who can be fairly credited with bringing the EU back to the negotiating table in 2009, and who singlehandedly convinced the other provinces it was a good idea, fell victim to the demands of the street.