Standing before a crowd of cheering supporters after winning a historic majority in 2018, François Legault took a moment to address anglophones in the province.
“I want to assure you that my government will be your government,” he said, speaking in English.
Days later, Legault appointed himself the minister responsible for the English-speaking community, saying he would “govern in a respectful manner with the historical anglophone community.”
But in the years since, many anglophones say, Legault has failed to live up to that promise.
In interviews ahead of the Quebec election, mayors, community leaders and residents expressed concern that the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s policies on education, language and secularism have made them feel alienated and unwelcome.
Legault’s decision not to take part in the English-language TV debate also upset some anglophones.
The Quebec Liberals, traditionally the home to English-speaking voters, have faced criticism of their own, with many voters saying they feel the party hasn’t done enough to defend their interests.
With the CAQ favoured to win another mandate on Oct. 3, many said they are exploring their voting options — including not casting a ballot at all.
“There is some concern about representation. You know, who speaks for our community?” said Donald Warnholtz, president of the Townshippers’ Association, an organization representing English speakers in the province’s Eastern Townships.
The Conservative Party of Quebec, which has enjoyed a rise in popularity under leader Eric Duhaime, has tried to reach out to English voters. As well, two new parties — the Canadian Party of Quebec, led by Colin Standish, and Bloc Montreal, led by Balarama Holness — are also dedicated to defending minority rights.
‘I just feel like we’ve been stepped on’
Warnholtz, who lives in Sherbrooke, Que., said anglophones in the region felt targeted in particular by Bill 96, the province’s updated language law.
The law touches on everything from employment to access to health care. How exactly the law will be enforced still hasn’t been made clear.
“People are worried and not sure exactly what’s going to happen,” he said.
Bill 21, the CAQ’s secularism law, as well as Bill 40, which included a failed attempt at abolishing English school boards, also upset the population, Warnholtz said.
“On a broader scale, I’d say the concerns in the community are about the general erosion of people’s rights over the past few years,” he said.
In Montreal’s predominantly English-speaking west end, many residents brought up Bill 96 when asked about the CAQ and the coming election.
“I just feel like we’ve been stepped on,” Samuel Ezerzer said outside the Cavendish Mall in Côte Saint-Luc, in the riding of D’Arcy-McGee. “But I love Quebec, I love staying here. This is my home.”
Joe Brody, 86, has always voted Liberal and knows his local candidate personally.
Despite that, he’s considering casting his ballot for another party, saying he’s unimpressed with how the Liberals handled the debate over language.
Bill 96, which passed this spring, limits the number of students allowed to enrol in English-language CEGEPs.
There are also French-language requirements for students doing CEGEP in English — an amendment proposed by the Liberals.
The Liberals eventually walked back that proposal, and voted against the bill.
“I don’t like when people are restricted in any way, in education. I think this province needs educated people, not necessarily unilingual francophones,” Brody said.
Joan Lee, president of the West Island Black Community Association, has also heard concerns about the language law from people of all ages.
She said the new requirements in CEGEP seem like an added hurdle to her group’s young members.
“They don’t think that they will be given a fair chance because [for] a lot of them also English is not their first language,” she said.
“So in general, they’re just saying, ‘why do I need to go through all of this? I might as well just, you know, move to another province where they feel actually welcomed.'”
Lee said she’s been urging local residents both young and old to vote, to “make your voice be heard.”
The loser could be democracy
The reality of the electoral map is that English speakers — while representing roughly 10 per cent of Quebec’s population — are largely concentrated in a handful of ridings.
Georges Bourelle, the mayor of Beaconsfield in Montreal’s West Island, said he feels English speakers get overlooked — no matter who is in power.
“I have to say that for many years, I felt that as a mayor, and as a resident before, in many ways the Liberals took us for granted, ” he said.
“We seem to fall in the dark here, and the black hole, whether it is Liberal, or whether it is somebody else.”
WATCH | Leader of the Canadian Party of Quebec on Bill 96
Such discontent has observers concerned that many anglophones will choose to sit out this election, continuing a trend that began in 2018.
The threat of an independence referendum — normally a rallying cry for the Liberals — has receded under the nationalist CAQ.
“There might be a loser in this election, and it might be democracy, with allophones and some anglophones deciding to stay home again,” said Valérie-Anne Mahéo, a political scientist at Université Laval.
“It remains to be seen whether the two more anglophone, more Montreal-centred parties can actually present themselves as viable alternatives. But what I’m scared of is that many anglophones will decide to stay home if they don’t have a good option with the Liberals.”