Politics·Analysis

Tom Mulcair the target this time as French leaders' debate approaches

The front-runner in Quebec, the NDP's Tom Mulcair, has been in the crosshairs there, including as the subject of a niqab attack ad by the Bloc Québécois, in the run-up to the first French-language leaders' debate on Thursday.

Bloc unleashes 'niqab' attack ad on Mulcair in attempt to regain seats

According to the polls, Quebecers seem to think NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, shown here with his wife, Catherine Pinhas, at a Montreal rally earlier this month, is the best choice for replacing Stephen Harper. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

If there is an upside to the forever election campaign, it is that it allows for the unexpected.

The photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach, and the story of his Canadian connection offered a quick glimpse into how our politicians manage crisis, an actual measure of leadership.

But such moments are short-lived. Talking points return, and the parties regroup to campaigns so scripted they can arouse cynicism in even the most earnest.

In Quebec, where there is no shortage of political cynicism, the run-up to the first of the two French-language debates this week seems to have heightened the idea that someone, somewhere is gaming something.


How to watch Thursday's debate

The French-language leaders' debate will be broadcast live and live streamed online 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET Thursday.

You can watch the debate in simultaneous English translation on CBC News Network and online at CBCNews.ca/CanadaVotes. The debate will be broadcast in French by Radio-Canada (check local listings) and live streamed online at ICI Radio-Canada.ca.

The debate is being produced by a partnership of Radio-Canada, La Presse, Télé-Québec, CBC News, CTV News and Global News.


Quebec's campaign trail is suddenly littered with talk of the Clarity Act and niqabs, of who is "old stock" and who's not — a conspicuous awakening of the wedge politics that have fuelled two of the most divisive periods in the province's recent history.

Part identity politics, part politics of fear, it's a foul mix made for the basest of instincts, and, in all likelihood, one that will feed at least part of Thursday's leaders' debate on Radio-Canada and CBC News Network.

Mulcair in the crosshairs

Four years ago, on the eve of the French debate in the last election, the Montreal Canadiens swept into the playoffs, and game 1 against the Bruins was suddenly scheduled for the same night.

The Bloc Québécois urged the television consortium to change the date, claiming the choice of which to watch would leave many Quebecers "heartbroken."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is blasting Mulcair for being too accommodating when it comes to religious minorities. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The consortium complied, but if anyone was left distressed, it was BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe. Jack Layton's performance that night was pivotal in the NDP's coming "orange wave" and the Bloc's near demise.

This time, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Layton's successor, will likely take the brunt of his opponents' attacks.

NDP support in Quebec has hardly budged. All polls since the outset suggest they're likely to retain the 54 seats they held when the election was called, maybe even gain a few.

So, making inroads, small gains, is what all the others are after, Duceppe first among them.

At 68, and with over 20 years in politics, he is a popular, respected elder statesman.

Still, many Quebecers were angered by his return to the Bloc's leadership in June, seeing it more as an opportunity for splitting the vote and less as one for ousting Conservative Stephen Harper, an incentive behind much of the political sentiment here.

Months later, try as he might, Duceppe has not managed to refuel the Bloc's fortunes.

And so, last Friday, as if to prove that desperate times require desperate measures, the Bloc released an attack ad aimed at Mulcair entitled La goutte de trop — literally, a drop too much, figuratively, the last straw.

Veiled threat

Picking up on the controversy over Energy East, the 21-second animation is a timeline that turns an unwanted pipeline (at least in Quebec) dripping big black drops into an ominous niqab.

Care of Mulcair, the ad contends, Quebec will be awash in oil and Muslim women wearing face coverings.

It's an ad that makes no sense except in Quebec where it aims to appeal to progressive and conservative voters at once.

In fact, it is the same calculation the former Parti Québécois government made in promoting its failed charter of values, an attempt to tap into some of Quebec's contradictions and be a bit of everything for everyone.

And the fallout is similar. Over the weekend, NDP election posters in Montreal were tagged with supposed slurs of "Islam," and at least one of the posters for the NDP candidate in Papineau was literally defaced, her picture painted over with a black niqab.

You can't blame all of this on Duceppe, but his party suddenly seems willing to sideline its quest for independence and social justice for simple fear and loathing, a choice that means any potential vote splitting — if the Bloc can manage that — may not be among progressives, but rather among conservatives.

Preparing for the worst

For their part, Justin Trudeau's Liberals and Mulcair's NDP are promoting a different kind of fear leading into this debate — namely how they'd deal with another Quebec referendum.

No matter that the issue isn't actually in play right now, the parties seem to want to best each other in preparing for this federalist nightmare.  

The NDP got the ball rolling in June when Mulcair reminded everyone of the NDP's support for something called the Sherbrooke Declaration.

Reminding was indeed needed. The little-known, 10-year-old document confers special status on Quebec and sets the bar for any referendum victory at 50 per cent plus one (provided the question is clear).

This, of course, clashes with the federal Clarity Act's looser "clear majority" hurdle, and Trudeau wasted no time firing back.

No symbolism here. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau embraces former leader Stéphane Dion, author of the Clarity Act, following a campaign stop in Montreal on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But his repeated attempts at making this difference a campaign issue, including by dragging former prime minister Jean Chretien out for a big rally, haven't really gelled, perhaps because the debate around the Clarity Act was enough of a morass the first time around.

As things stand here, the Clarity Act is law, the Quebec Liberals have over two years left in a majority mandate and the prospect of a third referendum is about as far away a reality as that supposed sea of niqab-wearing women lined up to swear allegiance to the Queen.

Back in 2011, the Liberals and Bloc had a good go at each other over Quebec's place in the Constitution during the French-language debate.

Harper stepped in and marked points with the sobering thought that Quebecers have other priorities, too.

On that, at least, he is still right. 

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.

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