POLITICS

Quebec Election 2012: Francois Legault Wants Kids To Stay At School Until 5 p.m.

08/09/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 10/09/2012 05:12 EDT
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MIRABEL, Que. - There will be a lot less late-afternoon texting and TV watching for Quebec high-school students if a new political party gets its way.

The Coalition for Quebec's Future says it would adjust secondary-school opening hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. if it wins the election, in order to better reflect the schedule of modern families and to help fight the province's high dropout rate.

Leader Francois Legault says he wants to put an end to adolescents going home in the middle of the afternoon and playing video games alone in the house. Instead, they would do extracurricular activities, like sports or cultural classes, or could get help with their homework.

"Those famous yellow buses wouldn't leave at 3:30 p.m. anymore. They'll leave schools at 5 p.m.," Legault said at a campaign stop in Mirabel, just north of Montreal.

The measure would be implemented over five years and cost $290 million when fully implemented. He said it would be introduced first in poor neighbourhoods, with high dropout rates.

He said teachers wouldn't be forced to work an extra hour. Those who choose to, he said, would get a pay raise. Legault said the plan would have to be negotiated with teachers' unions.

The promise was greeted skeptically by one teachers' association.

It said many schools already have afternoon programs, on a voluntary basis, while a wall-to-wall policy change would create logistical problems for both students and teachers. The group's president cited transportation in rural areas as one example.

"When we look at the geographic reality of Quebec and school transportation, it means that there will be students who arrive home at 6 p.m.," said Manon Bernard, president of the Federation de l'enseignment, which represents more than 60,000 teachers in different unions.

For their part, the governing Liberals accuse the Coalition of making promises it can't afford with its cocktail of tax cuts and spending pledges.

One week into the campaign, the Liberals have made small, targeted promises reminiscent of those from the Harper Tories in their 2006 and 2008 election wins.

They include home retrofitting tax breaks, $100 to help families buy school supplies, and a maximum $500 tax refund for investing in companies that operate in the North.

But such promises aren't what have generated the bulk of media attention.

Jean Charest was livid over a report that said provincial police cancelled a surveillance operation on a construction-union official, who allegedly has Mob ties, after the man chatted briefly with the premier at a public event in 2009.

The report by the French-language CBC never suggests the premier interfered. What it does is quote anonymous police sources speculating on different reasons for the operational change.

One source suggested the provincial force gets cold feet whenever an investigation gets too close to the government. Another police source, however, is cited in Montreal La Presse saying the surveillance simply ended when investigators got what they needed for a case on another suspect who is now in court.

Charest fumed that the report and its timing, during an election campaign, amounted to a politically motivated smear job.

He called it "terrible" journalistic ethics and guilt-by-association. He suggested he was considering suing Radio-Canada, or lodging a complaint with its ombudsman, after the election. In the meantime, he said, he didn't want it to be a distraction during the campaign.

"My conscience is clear this morning," Charest said Thursday. "I don't think that's the case for the journalists, and those who are running Rad-Can."

The complaint from Charest prompted a condemnation from Quebec's journalism federation, which said it was no politician's business to dictate editorial choices to the media. However, some other Quebec media figures have also expressed their unease with the report.

For its part, Radio-Canada defended the report. It rejected the insinuation that the piece was timed to damage Charest.

Jean Pelletier, Radio-Canada's director of information, said the details in the story were only confirmed in the second or third week of July and the piece was produced at a regular pace thereafter.

"I don't think it's a lack of ethics to reveal facts that are in the public interest," said Pelletier, who added that the report never accuses Charest of anything: "We never maintained that Charest intervened in an inquiry."

As for the Parti Quebecois, on Thursday it became the second party to promise measures to protect Quebec businesses from foreign takeovers, after Legault's Coalition.

The promises came amid the takeover attempt of Rona from the U.S. giant Lowe's, following the purchase of Alcan by Rio Tinto several years ago. PQ Leader Pauline Marois made her promise in front of a Rona branch in the Saguenay region, where former Alcan workers were locked out by Rio Tinto.

The PQ said it wants the province's giant pension-fund manager, the Caisse de depot, to place $10 billion from its $160 billion in assets in a new "strategic investment fund" that would intervene during takeover efforts and also invest in smaller businesses.

Some economists have warned that such politically directed use of pension funds is a bad idea for multiple reasons.

They argue that it leads to a poorer return on investment and also say that protecting businesses from foreign takeovers stifles economic innovation.

Another thing that caught the attention of journalists covering Marois' campaign Thursday was a lengthy profile piece on her in a Quebec news magazine.

The profile in l'Actualite reveals that she was on the verge of quitting during a putsch attempt last year. She apparently opted to stay on when the move to oust her, and replace her with ex-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, fell apart.

Marois says she was also determined to soldier on because she felt the party would be no better off under a new leader, and would have found itself scrambling to work on new policies with an election approaching.

The piece offers some intensely personal insights.

The daughter of a mechanic and house cleaner, Marois describes feeling awkward about the cheap shoes she used to wear as a child along with her school uniform. Today, the magazine story says, Marois buys new shoes on every trip she takes.

The magazine's interviews with her were conducted at a hair salon. The story says Marois gets her hair styled every day, and goes to 30 different salons in various parts of Quebec. It notes that a colleague once suggested she looked "tired" on TV one day when her hair happened to be flat.

Marois says her recent wealth — she is married to a real-estate developer, and has had a steady political salary for most of the last 30 years — is a political blessing. It allows her full independence when making ethical choices, she says.

The piece says friends of Marois are puzzled that she can be so warm and colourful in private, even peppering her language with four-letter words, but affect such courtly coolness in public.

-With files from Martin Ouellet, Lia Levesque and Peter Rakobowchuk

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