As the Quebec election campaigns lurches toward its midway point Saturday, time seems to be moving backwards.

Earlier this week, students rallied for a nightly demo, trying to revive the fervour of last spring. The familiar singsong of protestors and the telltale flash of police car lights infused the evening with a sense of déjà vu.

The following night, I came across another small demo near my home. They carried placards painted with black triangles, red squares and a few rough stick-figures that seemed to stand for same-sex couples.

Must be a pro-student/gay pride demo, I thought. I couldn't help but see the similarities between these protesters and Quebec's politicians, the way they've been going on, all reducing identity to its component parts, while bundling unrelated issues together.

French, English, immigrant, separatist, federalist, business. Same old, I thought, then headed home.

A once-promising start

The first two weeks of this dead-of-summer campaign seemed to promise anything but the same old.

The appetite for sovereignty being low, more current issues surrounding corruption allegations and student grievances topped the electoral agenda.

Even more pressing, the arrival of a new contender in François Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) appeared to be changing the game.

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A three-way-race? That's what the polls suggest. Coalition Avenir Québec leader Francois Legault chats with CAQ candidates at an election stop in Nicolet. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

If only by being anybody but the two old-line antagonists, Legault is giving the Parti Quebecois and Liberals such a good run that we're now watching a strong three-way race.

But, because of this perhaps — because of the almost clinical need of Quebec parties to distinguish themselves — the debate has now lapsed back into so many of the same old fears and phobias.

Talk of stronger language laws, an eventual referendum, the use of the notwithstanding clause to challenge the Charter of Rights — all are back in circulation. Also back with a vengeance, the old identity politics that have bedeviled this province for years.

For many of us, it feels like we have been thrust back in time, at least to the inflammatory debates surrounding the formation of the Bouchard-Taylor commission five years ago.

In 2007, the Charest government mandated two eminent Quebecers —sociologist Gerard Bouchard and McGill philosopher Charles Taylor — to examine the issue of "reasonable accommodation" of minority rights.

This is often a thornier question here than in the rest of Canada given Quebec's own minority status in the country, and the commission's public forums were volatile and the discussion often vitriolic.

In the end, though, the commission concluded that the government should take measures to enshrine the secular nature of the state and develop policies to counter discrimination, and that it was "time to move on." 

One would have hoped that would have settled things down, but it seems that any attempt to broach these issues still brings on a guaranteed backlash, which is where we find ourselves now.

A charter of Quebec secularism

A series of events earlier this week brought matters to a head.

PQ leader Pauline Marois pledged to introduce a symbolically titled Charter of Quebec Secularism if elected, a law that would reinforce the "neutral" nature of Quebec by banning religious symbols and apparel like the hijab or the turban in the public service.

However, not without contradiction, the PQ made an exception for the rather controversial crucifix that hangs in Quebec's National Assembly.

Bouchard-Taylor commission had recommended it go. But Marois, and Legault for that matter, argue that the crucifix is an intrinsic part of the province's cultural heritage and should stay.

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Local PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib stands next to PQ leader Pauline Marois in Trois-Rivieres on Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

But then one of her candidates, Djemillah Benhabib, running in Trois-Rivières, had the temerity to disagree, albeit politely, with her party. And that's where things got ugly.

Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay piped up on a popular radio show and took issue with Benhabib. He said it's not for immigrants to "impose their values" on our society, and not for her, whose name he said he couldn't even pronounce, to tell "us" how to live.

Tremblay's comments were immediately decried, his resignation was called for, and a chorus of voices rose up to assert the open and tolerant nature of Quebecers.

Benhabib's bio was brought to bear. Born in the Ukraine of Greek and Algerian parents, she was heralded by Marois as a perfect example of integration.

Then the CAQ's Legault made his own little blunder. While talking about Quebec's high rate of high school drop outs, Legault counseled Quebec's youth on their work ethic, and suggested they work harder and take their lead from their Asian classmates.

Jean Charest, who had stayed out of the Benhabib fray, perhaps quietly hoping that his opponents would do themselves harm all on their own, jumped in and excoriated Legault for his prejudice.

This is all so far afield, such a diversion, it should be funny. But it's not.

As last spring's student demonstrations and the pots and pans protests signaled, Quebec's population is already deeply divided over things like education and the economy, and can ill-afford the further polarization these old identity wars bring.

Quebec has the heaviest debt to GDP ratio of all provinces, and continues to be ensnared by a corruption scandal that ties organized crime to legitimate business and politicians, a collusion of interests that could well further tarnish public office when the Charbonneau commission reconvenes this fall.

On top of that, there's the province's well-documented shortage of doctors, its crumbling infrastructure and under-funded educational system, and a whole host of pressing issues that should be front and centre in a provincial election.

Perhaps Sunday's televised leaders' debate will return the campaign to its earlier promise, and away from the same old.

If not, breathe. After Sunday, the campaign continues for another 16 days.