PQ MNA Agnès Maltais: Sovereignty in her head and heart

PQ MNA Agnès Maltais: Sovereignty in her head and heart

LiQ_Mag_July_2015_CoverThis article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Simon Jacobs

One of the first things people see when they enter the riding office of MNA Agnès Maltais is an old chair upholstered in blue cloth, with a high back, armrests, and a small brass wheel attached to the bottom of each leg. “Go sit in it,” suggests her secretary. “It’s her old seat from the National Assembly.”

When the government installed new chairs in the Salon Bleu, MNAs were offered the chance to buy their old chair. The chair attests to Maltais’ longevity as a politician. She is one of the longest-sitting members of the Parti Québécois, in office since 1998. Before the recent PQ leadership race, she was the interim party leader and Official Opposition house leader.

Maltais has represented the riding of Taschereau in the Québec City region for 17 years. Her office, in the heart of the St-Roch district, is in the same complex as the Gabrielle-Roy library. Maltais herself is something of a reference for other MNAs. She was minister of culture and communications from 1998 to 2001, delegate minister of health, social services and youth protection and delegate minister of employment (2001-2003), and president of the Opposition caucus (2003-2012). In the last PQ government, she was minister of labour, employment, and social solidarity, and minister responsible for the status of women.

Maltais, 58, spent the early years of her career in the theatre. She founded a theatre troupe in 1982 and acted for eight years. For another eight years she worked behind the scenes, as director of Périscope and Théâtre de la Bordée.

Maltais’ community activism has also taken much of her time over the years. As a CEGEP student she was vice-president of the student political action committee and helped organize a student strike. She was deeply involved in community organizations and municipal politics. She has also been involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and was the first openly lesbian member of the National Assembly, coming out in 2003.

Her leadership experience made her transition into provincial politics – or as she would correct, national politics – relatively easy. She won her seat six times from 1998 to 2014 and is now entering her 17th year in the National Assembly.LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

She is proud of the grassroots support her party receives. “We are the party with more members than all the other parties combined,” she said. “When debates are held, all the regions of Québec will be represented in the hall, without having to chase after members.” She sees this as the fundamental strength of the party.

During her time in the National Assembly, Maltais has seen the structure of the PQ remain steady, even as the leadership has gone through many changes. She remains firm in her belief that at its core the party is very democratic, with key decisions made through discussion and debate at the regional level and across Québec.

Still, she worries that the party has lost voters and influence with the creation of new parties such as the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The recent CAQ surge hit PQ representation in the Québec City region particularly hard; Maltais is now the only elected PQ MNA in the city.

She points to the last election campaign as the source of the party’s current difficulties. She says the idea of sovereignty was not well addressed. She also believes popular talk-radio shows, known locally as la radio-poubelle, favour right-wing candidates, and constant criticism on the airwaves during the campaign turned public opinion against the party. She believes Québécois are more inclined toward social democracy, even though this is not expressed at the polls. “Our analysts say that while people [in the Québec City region] may be closer to their pocketbooks […] their hearts are to the left.”

She seems unfazed by the recent leadership race, which brought millionaire businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau into the top job at the expense of candidates seen as farther left. “All the people that enter the PQ leadership race fundamentally have to follow the party program,” she says.

Media coverage is one thing that has changed a lot since her early years in the National Assembly, she notes. “When I arrived in 1998 there was the morning paper, and the evening news broadcast, with the afternoon news in-between. So you had the afternoon to correct things [and] contact journalists in time for the evening news. Today, you have continuous news. It starts with the news channels CNN and RDI, and follows with social media. Therefore, you are constantly under the media’s magnifying glass. It’s incredible.”

For Maltais, Québec sovereignty is as much an affair of the head as it is of the heart. She believes elected officials are always more responsible when they are closer to the people and decisions are made in consultation with the public. She says the decisions made in Ottawa do not reflect the reality of life in Québec. She also points out that Québec’s demographic percentage in relation to the rest of Canada is shrinking along with Québec’s influence on Canadian policy.

Maltais says she will most likely run in the next election and is not yet tired of political life. “It’s important to bring in new people, to bring in the youth, but it’s also important to have people who already know how the democratic system works, to pass on the flame,” she says. “You need to have a mix at the National Assembly.”

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About Author

Simon Jacobs

Originally from the UK, Simon Jacobs has been living in Quebec City since 1989. He played viola with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra for 20 years before moving on to become the Executive Director of the Morrin Centre. Currently studying for an MBA at Laval University, he is also a certified Quebec City tour guide and a historian specialising in the Jewish history of Quebec City. He is the current president of the Québec Anglophone heritage network.

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