PQ renews efforts to woo minority voters: Can it pay off by 2018?

The Parti Québécois lays out a plan to build bridges with anglophones and ethnic minorities, starting with a change of tone in the weeks since the mosque shooting.

Leader Jean-François Lisée promises to 'tone down' the rhetoric, but the past is not easily erased

The Parti Québécois is looking to make inroads with the province's minority voters. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

Our interview wrapped up on a Sunday afternoon — five hours before bullets flew through the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.

I'd been in Montreal for an exclusive interview with the Parti Québécois leader's new special advisor on diversity, Évelyne Abitbol, along with PQ MNA Carole Poirier, the party's spokeswoman on immigration and diversity issues.

Little did any of us know that the topic of our conversation — the PQ's desire to build bridges with minority communities — would end up at the heart of the discussion in this province in the aftermath of the Jan. 29 mass shooting. 

Six Muslim men were killed in their mosque, just after evening prayers.​

Historically, the majority of what former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau infamously called the "ethnic vote" — cast by both anglophones and allophones — has gone to the Liberals.

With the PQ's traditional voting bloc of white, French-speaking Quebecers in demographic decline, those ethnic votes could make or break the Parti Québécois in the next election, scheduled for October 2018.

Évelyne Abitbol is the PQ leader's special advisor on diversity. (CBC/Radio-Canada)
Leader Jean-Francois Lisée brought Abitbol on board to try to grapple with that reality. 

Moroccan-born Abitbol, who ran unsuccessfully for the PQ in Acadie in 2014, has decades of experience with international, governmental and non-governmental organizations and a Rolodex full of names and numbers of people in Montreal's various ethnic communities.

"I want to build bridges, but I want to bring people [from] both sides. We have to meet in the middle of the bridge," said Abitbol, who is the co-founder the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom.

She understands that means addressing obstacles to successful integration that affect new, second- and third-generation Quebecers, issues such as employment and housing discrimination, French-language training for newcomers and recognition of foreign credentials.

'Listening tour'

The day after last month's mosque attack, PQ MNAs fanned out across Montreal on a "listening tour" that had already been organized by Abitbol.

The tour included 45 activities involving 11 linguistic and ethnic communities, including groups representing anglophones, North Africans, Kurds and Haitians.

Jean-François Lisée has acknowledged his remarks about Muslim women hiding AK-47s in their burkas went too far last September during the PQ leadership race. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Poirier said for some of her caucus colleagues, especially those from rural ridings, these encounters with what she calls "the Montreal reality" would prove to be an eye-opening experience.

"Some know it well, some less well," she said.

"It's a dialogue that we want to establish, in a frank and honest way, and above all, with an openness from all my PQ colleagues," she said, adding that they're building on the work of Maka Kotto, the Cameroonian-born PQ MNA for Bourget.

Abitbol says eventually she would even like to pair up MNAs with different minority groups or associations, in order to strengthen their links over the long term.

Before vs. after shooting

The PQ's outreach strategy is in stark contrast to the identity politics that was front and centre of the debate during the PQ's recent hotly contested leadership campaign.

Then came the mosque shooting.

In the days after the attack, discussion centred on the need for members of the province's political elite to check their tone when it comes to immigrants, and Muslims, in particular.

Two weeks after the shooting, CBC offered the PQ an opportunity to talk about what had happened — and what impact the devastating event would have on its approach to ethnic minorities.

The party declined the invitation.

"We will not add anything," a party spokesperson wrote.

However, it is already clear that the party has, at least, tweaked that approach. 

And it started at the top, with a mea culpa from leader Jean-François Lisée.

Lisée admitted a few days after the shooting that his statement to Le Devoir newspaper last September during the leadership race, "We've seen AK-47's under burkas in Africa," went over the line. 

"The rhetoric has to be toned down on every side of the debate," Lisée told Daybreak's Mike Finnerty on Jan. 31.

The PQ's secularism critic, Agnès Maltais, also acknowledged the new environment.

In the fall, during a committee hearing on the province's religious neutrality bill, Maltais declared that she would refuse service from a civil servant wearing an overtly religious symbol.

She said her position was rooted in the fact that as a lesbian, she is uncomfortable with how religions have historically treated homosexuals.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, is under attack from the opposition, including PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisée, centre, and the CAQ's François Legault, right, for not going far enough in Bill 62. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But when I asked Maltais a week after the shooting whether she would still say the same thing in public, she shook her head.

"At this time, I would not repeat that," she said.

Lisée and the party released a 20-point plan for successful integration of immigrants a week after the attack.

It includes measures to fight employment and housing discrimination and to speed up the recognition process for those with foreign credentials.

Still hurdles ahead

So, will the new tone paired with more on-the-ground outreach to minorities pay off in 2018?

Hurdles exist.

During our interview before the shooting, Abitbol said she believed the PQ could get past the legacy of the divisive debate over the party's so-called charter of values — Bill 60, which died on the order paper before the 2014 election.

"I think the charter of values is in the past," she said. 

But the shooting thrust the issue back to the surface. On Facebook,  the man charged in the six mosque deaths, Alexandre Bisonnette, wrote that he feared immigration would marginalize the white race.

The nature of the shooting – targeting Muslim people in a mosque – and the suspect's anti-Muslim views inevitably led to a renewed discussion about the integration of minorities in Quebec society.

Some people, including the governing Liberals, reminded the world that the PQ's failed charter made minorities feel targeted, particularly Muslim women. A CBC-Ekos polls carried out in 2013 found that most people believe the charter fostered anti-Muslim sentiment

The party's youth wing also put the charter debate back in the spotlight last weekend

Members debated a motion tabled by PQ youth from the Laurentians calling on the party to revive the ban on religious symbols for public sector employees.

After a heated debate, the motion was rejected, only garnering 15 votes in its favour.

However, the issue dominated coverage of the meeting in the lead-up to Sunday's vote. It also showed that the charter is not buried as far in the past as some in the party would like it to be.

Bill 62

The current PQ position on religious symbols could also be problematic in wooing minorities. 

The PQ, Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire share the stance that the Liberal government's religious neutrality legislation, Bill 62, does not go far enough.

If passed, the bill would ban anyone from providing or receiving public services with a face covered by religious garb, such as a burqa or niqab.

Philosopher Charles Taylor, the co-author of Quebec's report on reasonable accommodation, has backed away from a recommendation that certain civil servants should not be allowed to wear overt religious symbols. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

The opposition wants Bill 62 to include one of the high-profile recommendations of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report: that civil servants in enforcement positions, such as police, Crown prosecutors, prison guards and judges be prohibited from wearing any overt religious symbols.

But recent rejection of that recommendation by one of the commissioners, philosopher Charles Taylor, hobbles the part of the PQ's argument that relied on the "consensus" position of the Bouchard-Taylor report.

Finally, words can hurt.

Even though the PQ leader says he and his team are watching their tone moving forward, it does not erase the past. Or at least, the past does not erase so easily.

As Abitbol says, a positive ground game focused on improving living conditions for new Quebecers and their families is crucial if the PQ wants to make real inroads.

"So they all feel included in the Quebec we all love," she told me on the afternoon of Jan. 29.

Little did she know how important those words would be, only hours later.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.