Outwardly, Pascale Déry, who as higher education minister is spearheading a Quebec plan that may slash enrolment in anglophone universities, may not have seemed an obvious choice to run with Premier François Legault, for whom protecting French and secularism are top priorities.
In her previous life, Déry had been a spokesperson for Air Canada’s Montreal-based CEO, who was lambasted for not speaking French and saying he didn’t have time to learn the language of Quebec’s majority.
Déry was also a board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs–Québec, when it came out against Bill 21, Coalition Avenir Québec legislation that bars some government workers from wearing religious symbols such as the Jewish kippah or Muslim hijab on the job.
Last year, Déry not only ran for the CAQ, but she won her seat by a huge margin, and then immediately became a minister. Legault made her the first Jewish woman appointed to a Quebec cabinet.
Well-known among francophones thanks to her decade as a journalist at TVA, Déry only made it onto the radar of many anglophones last week when she announced Quebec will nearly double tuition fees for students from other provinces attending Quebec English-language universities.
Higher fees will scare off many if not most out-of-province students, Quebec’s three anglophone universities say. That could devastate the institutions’ finances, leaving multi-million-dollar holes in their budgets, beginning next year.
“We are increasing the tuition fees so there will be a drop (in enrolment) at Concordia, Bishop’s (and) McGill but, obviously, this is a choice that we’ve made” in order to boost funding of French universities and to protect the French language, she told the Montreal Gazette on Friday.
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The move took anglophone universities by surprise.
Concordia president Graham Carr said his university had been in talks with Déry this summer about helping non-Quebec students learn French and integrate into francophone society. Quebec’s tuition plan never came up.
By not consulting them about the tuition hike, the CAQ government showed a “lack of respect for anglophone institutions,” Carr said last week.
Bishop’s University, the smallest of the anglophone institutions, says it would be “very difficult” for it to survive the loss of almost one-third of its students. McGill University principal Deep Saini said he’s “very disappointed” by the plan, warning it will “have a major, long-term effect on Quebec’s economy.“
Born in 1976 to Moroccan-Canadian parents, the fluently bilingual Déry grew up in Town of Mount Royal. She has degrees from the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal, with a focus on journalism and political science.
Joining TVA in 2005, she was a news reporter, anchor and contributor to the JE investigative show.
Soon after leaving TVA in 2015, Déry had support from the Conservative Party of Canada establishment when she took her first stab at politics. But she lost the party’s nomination in Mount Royal riding in central Montreal to Robert Libman, who had previously been an Equality Party MNA and mayor of Côte-St-Luc. Undeterred, Déry ran for the Conservatives in Drummond, northeast of Montreal, placing fourth.
She went on to become the vice-president of communications at the Montreal Economic Institute, a conservative think-tank.
Between 2016 and 2022, Déry was a board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs–Québec (CIJA), according to her National Assembly biography.
In 2019, that organization and many other groups representing religious minorities opposed Bill 21, the CAQ’s secularism legislation.
While it supported religious neutrality of the state, the CIJA at a National Assembly committee described the proposed ban on the wearing of religious symbols as an “attack on fundamental rights and freedoms.”
Bill 21 is “an infringement of personal freedoms” and “runs the risk of creating a very divisive debate and of sending a negative message to religious minorities about their place and standing in Quebec,” Rabbi Reuben Poupko, the centre’s Quebec co-chair, told the Montreal Gazette at the time.
The bill eventually became law.
While running for the CAQ last year, Déry was asked about Bill 21 by the TVA network. “I’ve always been in favour of Bill 21, even before I joined the CAQ,” she said. “I’ve always endorsed it, even in the boards of directors I sat on. Those are the values I believe in.”
In recent months, Déry has resisted calls to extend Bill 21 to CEGEPs and universities, a move that would mean employees there would not be allowed to wear religious symbols. She has also said Quebec has no plan to ban prayer rooms in higher education facilities as it already does in elementary and high schools.
In late 2021, Déry was Air Canada’s director of media relations for eastern Canada when CEO Michael Rousseau caused an uproar when delivering a speech in English, using only a few words of French, in Montreal.
Afterward, Rousseau, with Déry by his side, could not answer reporters’ basic questions in French. In English, Rousseau said he had been able to live in Montreal for 14 years without speaking French, and that he did not have time to learn the language.
A year earlier, Déry had claimed to the Journal de Montréal that Rousseau spoke “functional French that he works to improve continually.”
Confronted with the Air Canada controversy last year, Déry said “the place of French is non-negotiable,” and she fully supported the CAQ’s Bill 96, the wide-ranging expansion of Quebec language rules that some anglophone groups have denounced as excessive.
Déry represents the riding of Repentigny, northeast of Montreal. She handily won in last fall’s general election, beating the second-place Parti Québécois candidate by more than 13,000 votes.
Politics runs in her family.
Her father, William Déry, was involved with the Liberal Party of Canada.
In 1984, he lost a bid for the Liberal nomination in Mount Royal riding to Sheila Finestone.
Four years later, Déry made headlines when the Liberals blocked his bid to run in St-Laurent because it had reserved the riding for a star candidate.
Déry’s incensed supporters disrupted the kickoff of the party’s Quebec campaign at the start of the 1988 federal election. Close to 100 supporters of the would-be candidate “tried to force their way into a Laval hall to confront party leader John Turner,” bearing placards and chanting slogans, the Montreal Gazette reported.