Martin C. Barry
In the Oct. 1 Quebec general election, Christopher Skeete, the Coalition Avenir Québec’s candidate in Sainte-Rose, became the only CAQ candidate from Laval’s six ridings to be elected. For Skeete, number three was a charm, since he ran unsuccessfully in two previous provincial elections. Newsfirst Multimedia had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Skeete at our offices. What follows is a transcript edited for length.
NM: Are you taking a break after the win?
Skeete: This is kind of when the dust starts to settle a bit. We’re waiting for news on when we’ll be taking our oaths of office, that sort of thing. Those of us who were elected are in contact with the National Assembly. People in Laval are starting to let me know about their activities. We’re getting into gear.
NM: Networking with community groups is certainly a major thing for elected officials. You say you are starting to do that.
Skeete: Well actually I’m not starting – I’ve been doing that since 2012. Don’t forget I ran in the 2012 election and also in 2014. We had already mapped out all the groups in Sainte-Rose and other parts of Laval.
NM: Within 24 hours of the election, CAQ leader François Legault declared that the party would be going ahead with the proposed new laws to regulate the wearing of religious symbols by public service officials and employees. Considering that Laval is very multicultural and some people in certain communities might see this as oppressive, what have you to say about the proposed legislation?
Skeete: I wouldn’t characterize it as tumultuous or in any way off to a bad start. I think, actually, I find it refreshing that we’re finally being clear. Don’t forget Bouchard-Taylor [Quebec’s ‘reasonable accommodation’ commission] was 10 years ago, and for 10 years this divisive issue has been used as a political wedge to separate Quebecers from one another. So I, on the contrary, applaud the clarity – the fact that we want to put this behind us quickly – and then we can go on with the real business of the state.
NM: So you’re suggesting it is best to get this out of the way before going onto other business.
Skeete: I think it’s important that we turn the page after 10 years of really not dealing with this issue, which was promised in the first mandate of Mr. Couillard in his first year and it was never delivered, and which was proposed by [former Premier] Charest back when Mr. Charest proposed the Bouchard-Taylor commission. I think that it’s time that we act. We need to put this behind us. And, quite frankly, I am also very tired that this is being used as a political wedge issue that is dividing Quebecers. So I want clarity and I think that’s what Quebecers also want – clarity on this issue.
NM: There are a lot of minorities in Quebec. We wonder just how representative the CAQ’s point of view is. It’s some people’s point of view, but not everyone’s
Skeete: Well, I’m from a minority. So I know exactly what it feels like to be a minority in Quebec. I think the thing that’s been missing in this file is clarity and action. So I think the Liberal Party used it as a scarecrow to scare Quebecers into voting for the Liberal Party by default because they didn’t have the sovereignty file to rally those people with them. On the other side, though, I think the PQ in 2012, when they tried to use the charter and all that, they refused to compromise and tried to use it as a wedge issue and as a political weapon to get their way. So I applaud actually our direction to want to get this done so we can stop talking about it once and for all and get on with the business of the state.
NM: From your own point of view and interpretation, what is the point and purpose, from the way you see it, of forbidding public officials and workers from displaying religious symbols?
Skeete: It’s actually not my interpretation. It’s the consensus that was drawn out of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, right. So this commission, lest we forget, was pan-Quebec, two very notable people in Quebec with lots of credibility who went around speaking with everybody in order to gain a consensus. And a consensus by definition means compromise. And their consensus was that people in authority, people who represent the power of the state should be free from religious symbols. And I think that’s a very moderate, very reasonable point of view. So I think we really need to stay on that course to put it behind us. The fact that is hasn’t been solved for the past 10 years is actually what the problem is, in my eyes.
NM: It has also been suggested that there are quite likely to be legal challenges to the religious symbols measures being brought in. What is your response to that?
Skeete: I think we live in a free society. People are free to contest the government as they see fit. I don’t have a problem with people exercising their rights.
NM: Sainte-Rose was the only riding in Laval that went to the CAQ, while the others stayed Liberal. What’s your interpretation of why Sainte-Rose went as it did?
Skeete: First of all, I think it’s great that for the first time in history the CAQ and its predecessors actually went beyond the Rivière des Mille Îles. I think it shows that Laval itself is done being taken for granted by the Liberals. If you look at the difference in scores in Vimont and in Laval-des-Rapides we came very close. So I think that signals that there’s a lot of potential in Laval for the CAQ. So my interpretation is: it was a tough road. The Liberals have been around for 150 years. It was always going to be a tough fight, but I think now the message is clear that people are ready to move on to an alternative that’s going to be credible and deliver the goods.
NM: Sainte-Rose seems to be quite a volatile riding. After first being created for the 2012 election, its voters have elected PQ, Liberal and now CAQ MNAs in the space of just six years. What does this tell you about the nature of Sainte-Rose?
Skeete: I don’t think the riding is volatile. I think Quebecers have been looking for an alternative. You know, if you look at 2012 there was a Liberal fatigue and I think people were looking for a change so they tried the PQ. And then the PQ was less than ideal and they went to the Liberals. I think people were waiting for the CAQ to demonstrate that it’s ready and that it could recruit a talented team. I think this time they saw that opportunity to send the Liberals out on a break.
NM: As the only CAQ MNA in Laval, but as an elected member of the governing party, what services would you like to see increased in Laval? What is Laval missing that the previous government hadn’t done?
Skeete: I think the biggest problem that I see in terms of what immediate impact the CAQ government can have for Laval is just fixing or adjusting this chronic underfinancing that we have of all our institutions. If you look at education, at health care, at culture, Laval is always getting less than its fair share per capita. So from my point of view I think that would be something that we would want to fix – that historical inequity. And I think that’s the advantage of having put in a CAQ government and having a CAQ representative on the island. Finally there can be change to the discussion, stop being taken for granted and get what’s ours.
NM: The CAQ has often stated its position on the future of Quebec’s school boards – that they should be abolished and replaced. The boards themselves, especially the Anglophone ones, have reacted by suggesting they will fight back in court.
Skeete: I don’t know that they’re going to be fighting us. I’ve think I’ve had some recent discussions with Anglophone groups. I think the biggest concern the English community has with regards to school boards is the suspicion that we’re going to start attacking language rights. I think that’s the real battle. I don’t think the real battle is school boards per se, I think the real battle is English language minority rights. And on that the CAQ has been clear: English-speaking Quebecers are a founding people of Quebec, English people should feel at home in Quebec and that is never going to change. What we’re talking about with school boards is giving more power to English-speaking Quebecers by decentralizing decision-making, empowering parents, empowering teachers and empowering the local principals. So if we can make principals and teachers more accountable and give more power to parents, I think the opposite will happen, I think more people are going to have power. I think it’s an empowerment vehicle, not a disempowerment thing or a disadvantage.
NM: Based on the by-laws of the school boards, they have to conduct universal suffrage elections in order to elect a chairman. Where do you stand on that subject?
Skeete: To be honest, I’m not an expert on school board democracy. But I like the term universal suffrage – because from what I do know about school boards, it’s far from universal. I think voter turnout on the French side is about 3 per cent – voter turnout on the English side is at best 17 or 18 per cent. It’s better than three, but it’s a lot less than what I would consider legitimate. So I think we’re going to see what happens. Now we’re still waiting for the dust to settle in terms of the Premier-elect taking power. And I’m sure that once the minister of education is sworn in we’ll be in a better position to answer that question. But for the time being I would caution against universal suffrage. I think it’s less than universal.