The House

Mid-week podcast: Niqab politics and French-language debate

Mark Kennedy and Marie Vastel join Chris to discuss how identity politics are playing out on the campaign trail, plus economic revisionism and a look ahead to the first French debate of the election.
Tonight's French language debate may not get the same attention outside Quebec that the others did, but it still could have a significant impact on the outcome of the electio (Reuters/Canadian Press)

This week on our midweek election podcast (download here), The House looks at identity politics and how they're playing out on the campaign trail with Mark Kennedy, parliamentary bureau chief for the Ottawa Citizen, and Marie Vastel, political writer for Le Devoir. Then, economic revisionism and a look ahead to the first French language debate of the election.

On the Bloc Québécois ad targeting the NDP's stance on niqabs and pipelines:

Vastel: I don't think we should be surprised by the ad. It's two issues that are very important to Quebecers. Energy East is something Quebecers broadly oppose and that the NDP has been somewhat vague on. And on the niqab, [the issue] always comes back and comes back with a bang. I'm not surprised to see the Bloc hitting that nail because it is a divisive issue. The ad ends with "I'm going back to the Bloc" and that's what they're trying to do.

Kennedy: Perhaps the "Rest of Canada" will never understand Quebec identity politics. If an ad like this was played outside Quebec, there'd be screaming in the streets. To many Canadians, they would consider it to be racist because it strikes right at the heart at someone's own identity. In this place, in this Quebec, in this campaign, apparently it's acceptable for a political party to put an ad like that on television, which many Canadians would think crosses the boundary of what is acceptable in political discourse.

What's NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's tactic in handling the issue?

Vastel: Tom Mulcair is stuck between the rest of Canada and Quebec. He's trying to keep this huge base he's built in Quebec, but also trying to court Ontario and the rest of Canada. There is this unease in the electorate that the NDP is taking into account with [Mulcair's] speech Wednesday — to appease, to calm people down and to justify his position because he knows it's not popular in Quebec.

Kennedy: Any time religion or faith becomes a campaign issue, you're dealing with fire. This is really explosive potentially. 

Is the niqab debate a wedge issue for the Bloc to use to draw votes away from the NDP?

Vastel: Absolutely. It's almost right across the province. But I would argue that in rural Canada, it si the same. The Conservatives have five seats in Quebec. If [the niqab debate] was only in Quebec, they wouldn't make such a big deal. We're talking about the Bloc, but the Conservatives have made a huge deal of this issue. They made sure they were talking about it a lot, and I doubt that was to save five seats in Quebec.

Kennedy: This might hurt the NDP. The Bloc is not the danger for the Tories here — it's the NDP. What the Tories want to do is bring the NDP down a notch or two. 

What can we expect going into the first French debate of the campaign?

Vastel: This is Gilles Duceppe's ultimate chance to come back. He's having a hard time getting his message out and this is the first time everyone will hear what he has to say and when he'll go toe to toe with Mulcair. He's a really strong debater, but so is Mr. Mulcair, and I think we could have some really interesting exchanges between the two of them.

Kennedy: As much as Mr. Harper has been under the gun in previous debates, now it will be Mr. Mulcair feeling the heat. Justin Trudeau will have to perform as well. He has the opportunity to basically turn the minds of Francophone Quebecers towards him. When issues like the Clarity Act come up, it will be fascinating to see how Justin Trudeau performs on that.

Vastel: There's a huge potential of votes for Mr. Trudeau in Quebec. As much as the NDP is a very strong first, I wouldn't say those are solid acquired votes for the NDP. A lot of people are undecided. They're not so much looking to the NDP as they're looking to get rid of Harper. 

Kennedy: There has been a pre-disposition ever since Trudeau became [Liberal] leader, among certain Quebecers, that they ought not to look his way. But I think there's also a history of Quebecers wanting to back a winner. If they see the way going towards Justin Trudeau and they start to determine that he is the agent of change, they might hold their noses and go his way.

What about Mulcair — what does he need to achieve in this debate?

Vastel: He has to find a balance. Not as quiet as the first debate, but still smiling and pleasant. Mr. Mulcair is known in Quebec as Angry Tom. He's going to have to watch that. And he'll have to be careful because Mr. Duceppe has a very good capacity at getting under people's skin. I would watch these exchanges with a lot of interest.

Kennedy: This debate is crucial for him on two issues, the Energy East pipeline and the niqab. He has to come out of this debate on Energy East with a crystal-clear position for Quebecers on where he would stand on that pipeline, and he has to walk the fence on the niqab issue.


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