Montreal

Identity politics resurface as Quebec election gets underway

If there was any doubt Quebec’s long-standing debate over identity would feature prominently in the coming election, the front-running Coalition Avenir Québec quickly put that to rest this week.

Decade-old debate starts anew as campaigning begins, worrying some minorities

A protester holds a sign which reads in French, Do not touch my freedom,' during a 2013 protest against the secular charter proposed by the Parti Québécois. The issue of Quebec identity and religious neutrality of the state has bubbled up again ahead of the Oct. 1 election. (Peter McCabe/Associated Press)

If there was any doubt Quebec's long-standing debate over identity would feature prominently in the coming election, the front-running Coalition Avenir Québec quickly put that to rest this week.

Ahead of the official start of the campaign on Thursday, the CAQ has played up its commitment to ensuring the secularism of the state and the integration of new immigrants.

At a weekend debate, party leader François Legault laid out his plan to block Canadian citizenship to new arrivals unable to learn French within three years. The proposal drew jeers from the crowd at Concordia University.

Later, in an interview with the French-language network TVA, he stressed his commitment to religious neutrality and said the Liberals' 2017 legislation, Bill 62, didn't go far enough.

Identity is one of these elements of Quebec politics where you always have to talk about it, but you know you're not going to win based on that debate.-  Christian  Bourque , Leger Marketing

Simon Jolin-Barrette, the CAQ incumbent for the riding of Borduas in southern Quebec, expanded on that point Tuesday on Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin.

He said the Liberals "have refused to address this issue and finally put guidelines that are very clear."

"We at the CAQ are committed to doing that," he said.

All this has played out amid a heated national debate over whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was right to call out a heckler for "racism" at a rally in Quebec last week, and Twitter posts from Conservative Quebec MP Maxime Bernier about the risks of multiculturalism.

Liberals tried to tackle the issue

The debate over religious accommodation has been simmering in the province for the better part of a decade.

In their 2008 report, sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor offered solutions aimed at assuaging concerns about the erosion of Quebec identity while respecting the rights of minorities.

The Liberals, led by Premier Philippe Couillard, had hoped to settle the issue with last year's religious neutrality legislation, which aimed to provide a framework for receiving and giving public services, including when it is permissible to cover one's face.

But it was challenged by civil rights groups who argued it unfairly targeted Muslim women and has been suspended pending a court decision on its constitutional merits.

Both the CAQ and the PQ argue the bill doesn't go far enough.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, right, looks on as CAQ leader François Legault speaks during a youth-oriented event in Montreal, Friday, August 17, 2018. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The CAQ wants to repeal the law and introduce its own bill banning the wearing of religious symbols, such as a hijab, to people in positions of authority — judges, police officers, prison guards and prosecutors, as well as teachers.

​The PQ would go even further, extending the ban on religious symbols to new daycare workers.

A priority for voters?

Couillard dismissed Legault's comments on secularism as another "squabble" that isn't a priority for Quebecers.

Polls suggest it isn't.

Identity and the integration of immigrants ranked far behind four other issues: health care, education, improving care for seniors and cutting taxes, according to a June poll by Leger Marketing.

"Identity is one of these elements of Quebec politics where you always have to talk about it, but you know you're not going to win based on that debate," said Christian Bourque, the polling firm's vice-president.

The PQ, he pointed out, lost out to the Liberals after championing the Quebec Charter of Values in 2014 and, a year later, the federal Conservatives were beat out despite a proposed niqab ban during citizenship oaths that polled well in Quebec.

You feel targeted no matter how the topic is discussed- Shahad Salma, lawyer 

​Bourque added that Jean-François Lisée's PQ has taken the strongest position on identity issues, and yet trails well behind the Liberals and the CAQ in the polls.

"The only one that seems to gain from a discussion on this issue would be the Liberals, who are seen as the champion of diversity and multiculturalism," he said. "Everybody talks about it, but it doesn't make a big difference when you get to the ballot box."

Still, some minorities who lived through the last Quebec election are watching anxiously to see how this one unfolds.

Montreal lawyer Shahad Salman, who wears a hijab, said "you feel targeted no matter how the topic is discussed."

Salman and a few friends made a video urging political parties to focus on health care, the economy and education, rather than identity.

"I think it's about time that people ask that this topic not be at the forefront of the campaign," she said.


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