From the ivory tower to the halls of power: Jean-Yves Duclos

From the ivory tower to the halls of power: Jean-Yves Duclos

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Speedskating is how academics see themselves. They skate mostly on their own, and they’re judged on their individual performance. Hockey is a different sport, and that’s what politics is. You have to accept you won’t always have the puck; someone else will have the puck, and you’ll have to have confidence in their ability.”

By Peter Black

The plan had been to do a “day-in-the-life” piece on Québec City’s very own cabinet minister in action in Ottawa. The minister: Jean-Yves Duclos, the respected Université Laval economist who was the surprise winner of the October 2015 election in the downtown riding of Québec. He is the first Liberal from the area to be at the centre of federal power since 1983, when the late Gilles Lamontagne, a former mayor of Québec City, served under Pierre Trudeau.

It had been a good plan, worked out by a patient staffer in the minister’s office, allowing time to chat between caucus meetings, a sit-down lunch in Duclos’ office, a visit to his office at the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development in Gatineau after question period, and an afternoon discussion session with university students.

Then this tweet, at 11:31 p.m. on Sunday, January 29: J’annule toutes mes activités prévues demain et je rentre à Québec. Je devais être de retour à la Chambre des Communes mais je serai dans ma ville, à vos côtés. Soyons forts et unis face à la peur [1].

If there ever was an eloquent example of how rapidly and dramatically the lives of public officials can change, this was it. A murderous rampage against innocent people gathering in prayer, a city in shock and grief, a community and nation stirred to compassion and solidarity; the eyes of the world were on Québec City, and Duclos and other elected officials were suddenly the public face of a city in crisis.

Duclos first learned of the shooting at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec via a text from his daughter. With Parliament set to reconvene after the Christmas break, the tragedy in the city’s Ste-Foy neighbourhood had suddenly seized the attention of the nation.

“Immediately I felt it was our entire community that was being hit, as opposed to one community or region, so it was extremely obvious to me we needed to be close together,” he said in a telephone interview from his Gatineau office the week after the attack.

“I was asked several times by my colleagues across Canada whether that tragedy was predictable. Not only was it not predictable, it was inexplicable. No one can explain that, in Québec City or elsewhere in Canada.”

In the days following the mosque massacre, Duclos found himself shoulder to shoulder with members of the Muslim community and political leaders of all stripes, at vigils and at the two public funerals for the six men who died.

“The most intense moment was … during the Québec City funeral, where we had people of all origins and perspectives, and what I heard made a lot of sense,” Duclos recalled. “The first imam who spoke said no one in our city … chose [their] place of birth, but we all chose to live in Québec City, and because of that, we all wanted to be well together.”

Being “well together” is at the core of Duclos’ mission. He is a highly improbable denizen of the corridors of power, yet one seemingly headed for great things.LiQ_Sub_Dec2015

Had he not decided to enter electoral politics, Duclos could have been more than satisfied with his accomplishments as an economist. Director of the Department of Economics at Université Laval, frequently sought-after media commentator, co-founder of the Poverty and Economic Policy Research Network, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and doctoral alumnus of the London School of Economics are just a few highlights of an academic CV that runs to 38 pages.

So why leap into the snake pit of politics? We finally got a chance to ask that question in person, as this day-in-the-life of a rookie minister found us having coffee at a restaurant on Grande Allée with Carnaval in full swing. Duclos had been with a party of ministers, MPs and officials on a tour of the reconstruction of the Voltigeurs de Québec Armoury. He was wearing the parka he had bought for a trip to Iqaluit with the prime minister earlier that week. His wife, Marie-Chantal Dumas, an academic adviser at a Québec City CEGEP, had joined her husband for the armoury tour, and it is she who describes the turning point in the lives of the Duclos-Dumas family.

It was July 2014 and the couple were having dinner outside. “At one point he says, ‘I have this idea. I think I’d like to run as a Liberal candidate.’” Dumas was immediately enthusiastic. “When you want things to be done differently, you just have to do it yourself … For all his life, I think he’s been working to make change, to see things implemented for a better outcome.”

Despite never having been a member of a political party before, Duclos was not a complete stranger to politics; his father Jean-Luc was a municipal councillor in Beauport for 24 years, before and after it was merged with Québec City.

“I saw him act at a level of government that was a lot closer to people. His way of acting with people had an influence on me. I think he knew the names of just about everyone in his quartier. I have 90,000 in my riding, so it’s a bit more difficult.”

Duclos also had a ringside seat for the theatre of parliamentary politics, as a page in the House of Commons when he was a student.

Running for office is one thing, but being in a position to influence government policy is another. Duclos emailed Justin Trudeau, whom he had never met, to declare his interest. He then faced four hurdles in his unlikely path to Trudeau’s cabinet: win a contested party nomination in the riding, win the election in a riding that had not elected a Liberal in 35 years, be part of the surprise Liberal triumph in the general election, and finally, be named to Trudeau’s inner circle.

The second hurdle was perhaps the most improbable. Few would have predicted it, but Duclos beat one-term NDP incumbent Annick Papillon by 1,000 votes. The only other Liberal elected in the Québec City region, Joël Lightbound, had a relatively easy ride in Louis-Hébert with a 4,500-vote majority.

Once he had cleared the electoral hurdle, it was maybe less of a surprise that Duclos got the call to serve in cabinet. Becoming minister of Families, Children and Social Development seemed a natural fit for someone who had examined those issues with academic rigour over a long career.

It also didn’t hurt that Duclos is a dedicated family man. He and Dumas have two sons and a daughter, all teenagers living at home, the model of the Liberals’ middle-class target demographic.

Étienne, 18, is an air cadet who has already earned his pilot’s licence, and, adds a mother concealing her concern, “he brought his sister and brother on a [flying] tour by himself.”

Clémence, 16, stays grounded as a ringette enthusiast.

Holiday time is at a premium when there’s a federal cabinet minister in the family, but they were able to manage a quick Christmastime ski break in Charlevoix, where the family has a chalet.

Sports and outdoor activities figure prominently in the household. Duclos’ Facebook page features a photo of himself and his younger son Antoine, 13, canoeing. Mom and dad actually met “on top of a mountain,” Duclos says, when both were members of the Université Laval outdoors club.

Duclos references sports in describing his transition from academia to politics. “Speedskating is how academics see themselves. They skate mostly on their own, and they’re judged on their individual performance. Hockey is a different sport, and that’s what politics is. You have to accept you won’t always have the puck; someone else will have the puck, and you’ll have to have confidence in their ability.”

So far Duclos has proven he’s pretty adept at handling the puck; as a neophyte minister, shortly after the Liberals came to power, he led the government’s action on the key election promise of a child benefit. Duclos calls the tax-free monthly payment to parents of children under 18 “the most significant policy innovation in a generation,” which could slash child poverty rates by 40 per cent.

It’s perhaps the best example to date of the minister’s aim to make a difference. “I feel privileged to [contribute to] making a difference, both in terms of outcomes, in terms of [helping] families in difficulty, but also in terms of the process that leads to these outcomes.” He adds that it’s also important to empower indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, so they feel they can make a difference as well.

Shortly before Duclos was named to cabinet, Le Soleil columnist François Bourque wrote a profile of Duclos, titled “Le Choriste” (The Choirboy), which looked at another of the economics professor’s passions – singing. Duclos got involved with the Petits Chanteurs de Charlesbourg, of which his elder son was a member, because they needed a bass voice. He ended up becoming president of the group and singing alongside his younger son, even taking a break from the 2015 election campaign to tour with the choir in Europe.

The demands of the job, of course, mean there’s less time for singing and other family activities, but Dumas says the three children understand, and the rare moments of family time that are possible “are even better moments now.”

There are many lives in the day of a federal cabinet minister. “What we do as government has an impact on the lives of millions of families; not only that, we have an impact on the sense of security they feel. Trust is extremely important – to do the right thing and to earn and maintain the trust of Canadians. So much about our families depends on the quality of what we do and of who we are.”

In other words, “being well together.”

[1] I’m cancelling all of my activities scheduled tomorrow and returning to Québec City. I was supposed to have been back at the House of Commons but I’ll be in my city, near all of you. Let us stay strong and united in the face of fear.
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About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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