Allison Hanes: Jennings navigated the QCGN through tumultuous times


Leading the fight against Bill 96 marked the 70-year-old former MP’s time as president of the organization representing Quebec anglophones.

Article content

When Marlene Jennings took the helm of the Quebec Community Groups Network in November 2020, hers wasn’t exactly a household name — even among Anglophones.

Advertisement 2

Article content

The umbrella organization for a network of English-speaking groups had been toiling away out of the spotlight during a long period of relative peace between the Two Solitudes. Only the English media typically covered its activities. It never organized big rallies like Alliance Quebec, its precursor, once did.

And yet, a year and a half later, the QCGN has single-handedly marshalled opposition to Bill 96, Quebec’s controversial new law to protect French. And it is now widely recognized as the voice of English-speaking Quebecers at a time of growing political upheaval.

Jennings, who recently announced her departure, managed to steer the QCGN through both a renewal process and the choppy waters of the most intense language debate in generations. The QCGN — and the English-speaking community — has emerged reinvigorated and formed new allegiances as a result of her leadership of her.

advertisement 3

Article content

Reflecting on her tenure, and with Bill 96 freshly adopted, the former Liberal MP and lawyer said the battle to defend the rights and freedoms of anglophones is entering a new phase.

“We definitely have to continue to advocate and to fight,” she said. “QCGN continues to have a role in tracking when the different pieces of Bill 96 come into force, creating a space where individuals, organizations, associations, companies… can report their experience.”

This will mean surveillance, monitoring, documentation, data collection, forging new partnerships and providing expertise for a “multitude” of legal challenges that Jennings believes are forthcoming.

***

Marlene Jennings built credibility slowly for the fight against Bill 96.
Marlene Jennings built credibility slowly for the fight against Bill 96. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

After initially joining a subcommittee, then a committee, then the board of the QCGN, Jennings said she never intended to lead the organization. But she said her “arm was twisted.”

advertisement 4

Article content

Her opponents initially questioned whether her recent spell as a trustee appointed by the Quebec government to clean house at the troubled English Montreal School Board meant she was too cozy with Premier François Legault’s ruling Coalition Avenir Québec party, which had once courted her as a candidate.

But the steely 70-year-old never shied away from taking on Legault, even while having to walk the fine line of avoiding being dismissed as a typical “angryphone.”

The QCGN slowly and steadily built credibility for its campaign against Bill 96 by rooting its opposition firmly in fact. Jennings spent countless hours doing outreach and seminars about the repercussions within the community.

The QCGN also produced a meticulous clause-by-clause analysis of Bill 96 that was quietly circulated amongst labour, business, health and civil society organizations outside the community to warn them of the potential fallout from a complex and opaque law.

advertisement 5

Article content

Still, she said the pressure of being the public face of opposition to Bill 96 was enormous — especially early on, when francophone Quebec seemed to unquestioningly accept the need to bolster French without sweating the details of how the government was planning to do it.

“One wrong move, one wrong misstep, one word that’s unacceptable and the impact is not just on the individual, it’s on the organization and on the community,” said Jennings. “That is exciting, but also scary.”

Jennings, whose Twitter finger has landed her in hot water before, did have one slip-up when she attempted to note a contradiction between Legault’s support for Ukrainian democracy, rights and freedoms and his own laws subverting them.

advertisement 6

Article content

“When I wrote my tweet, I didn’t write it as well as I could have,” she explained. “And so I got an avalanche of responses denouncing me — ‘How dare I compare François Legault to a fascist or a dictator or this or that.’ It was like, no, I don’t have the time or enough characters to counter that, so I removed the tweet and tweeted out that I maintain the position I took that his stance is inconsistent with the legislation he’s just brought in in Quebec, but I apologize for expressing in a manner that wasn’t as elegant as it might have been.”

Nevertheless, the QCGN’s behind-the-scenes work paid off. The closer Bill 96 got to becoming law, the more concern grew about its impact on new immigrants, courts, CEGEPs and the health system grew. And this time it was coming from beyond the English-speaking community.

Advertisement 7

Article content

Legault started to level accusations of “disinformation” and took out ads to deny some of the more dire consequences of Bill 96. But now, the French media pushed back to debunk his assertions, along with business groups, the Collège des médecins, the judiciary , advocates for immigrants, academics and others.

“More and more ears are perking up,” Jennings said. “Many of them have taken a much more critical look at Bill 96 and how it’s going to impact their membership or their sector. And they’re starting to be much more vocal now. All of that sprouts from a year and a half work from QCGN — and no one else.”

***

If it was never her plan to seek the presidency of the QCGN, it was always Jennings’s intention to leave in June 2022. That’s when the annual general meeting to elect a new president was supposed to take place. It has since been postponed until October in order to complete the transformation from an umbrella organization to more of an advocacy group in its own right.

advertisement 8

Article content

But Jennings decided to move on anyways to return to projects dear to her heart that she put on hold to lead the QCGN.

This includes sitting on the board of the Foundation for Black Communities, the first philanthropic body in Canada dedicated to dispersing charitable donations to Black organizations; setting up the Quebec chapter of Black Votes Canada, which seeks to engage members of the Black community in the democratic process; and joining the board of the Red Coalition, a group that seeks provides education, information and funding for legal challenges concerning racism and systemic discrimination. This appointment was announced Sunday.

Contrary to speculation, one thing she will not be doing is running for politics.

Advertisement 9

Article content

“No, and that’s in capital letters. I made a decision back in 2011,” she said. “I have no intention of changing that. For goodness sakes I’m 10 years older than I was when I made the decision.”

Demonstrators walk down Atwater Ave. during a rally to oppose Bill 96 in Montreal Saturday May 14, 2022.
Demonstrators walk down Atwater Ave. during a rally to oppose Bill 96 in Montreal Saturday May 14, 2022. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Jennings’s proudest moment at the QCGN was when thousands of people marched in the streets of Montreal on May 14. It showed the group’s tireless effort to sound the alarm against Bill 96 had mobilized average citizens and galvanized the English-speaking community.

“That we — and it’s not just me, but the whole team of staff and volunteers — had succeeded in shifting the direction of this super shipliner to take a more active role in advocating for our community and our rights … it’s amazing,” said Jennings .

Although many English-speaking Quebecers may be feeling demoralized about the passage of Bill 96 and Legault’s nationalist agenda being emboldened in the lead-up to a fall election, Jennings insisted he is not unassailable.

advertisement 10

Article content

Despite Legault’s popularity, Francophones are as appalled at the state of the health care system as Anglophones, she noted. And once the deleterious effects of Bill 96 on individuals, companies and institutions becomes clear, Jennings is convinced there will be an outcry.

“The more that happens — and it’s going to happen and become systemic in some places — it has to be documented. And once that happens our fellow francophone citizens are not going to stand for it,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt us, it actually hurts Legault.”

[email protected]

advertisement 1

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user follows comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your e-mail settings.


Leave a Comment