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Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to reporters during an election campaign stop in Saint-Bruno, Que., Saturday, August 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to reporters during an election campaign stop in Saint-Bruno, Que., Saturday, August 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec election

Courting ethnic votes is a delicate game for Quebec's leaders Add to ...

It is rarely seen in Quebec election campaigns, but a staple of every federal party’s tour: The leader visits Chinatown, a Sikh temple or some other ethnic community institution, sometimes even donning a piece of traditional garb in a gesture of respect.

They are politicians courting ethnic votes, to be sure, but even in the days when minority voters in federal elections were overwhelmingly and steadfastly Liberal, Conservative and NDP leaders alike made such stops to demonstrate openness.

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In this Quebec election campaign, such symbolic demonstrations of outreach are sadly rare. Minority communities are often cast in a negative or stereotyped light, or shunned, as all three main parties relentlessly pursue the francophone soft nationalist swing voters who decide elections.

In the name of creating a supposedly secular state, the Parti Québécois has pursued hostile policies, proposing a ban on non-Christian religious symbols from public institutions and two-tier citizenship based on ability to speak French – a position that softened under harsh criticism. The mayor of Saguenay, Que., Jean Tremblay, accused PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib who is a staunch advocate of complete secularism of being a foreigner with an "unpronounceable name" trying to impose alien values. (He was lambasted to varying degrees by all parties and many Quebeckers.) But the PQ’s Pauline Marois isn’t the only leader whose embrace of ethnic communities is notably absent. The closest thing to ethnic outreach for François Legault was expressing his admiration for those diligent Asians. And three weeks into the campaign, even Liberal Leader Jean Charest hasn’t made a single high-profile campaign stop designed to show love for a segment of Quebec’s population that is overwhelmingly on his side.

One Montreal Muslim leader has invited all three parties to make a campaign stop at his community centre. He hasn’t heard back, even from the Liberals.

“They are scared. The Liberals are scared. They know they don’t have enough support out in the regions where they have seats, few ethnic voters, and people who are more Catholic,” said Salam Elmenyawi. “But there’s a silent majority in the province who don’t care about this issue, one way or the other. So out of sheer opportunism, the PQ sees a chance to appeal to a thin slice of people.”

Mr. Charest has also been criticized for failing to condemn with enough force the PQ platform and the racist comments of the Saguenay mayor. He did express some regret in this campaign for failing to protect Quebec's anglophones when they were portrayed as disloyal and hostile to French in a news magazine. He says Quebec’s ethnic minority voters know who is on their side.

"Our party has a set of values that are clearly established," Mr. Charest said as his tour took him into western Quebec. "We live by them, we believe in them, they’ve allowed us to be a part of the political system for years."

Mr. Charest said Ms. Marois "Got caught red-handed, trying to pull a fast one on Quebeckers by trying to establish a higher key of citizenship for (new) Quebeckers. That offends people. If offends our basic values."

While Mr. Charest has criticized Ms. Marois’ Charte de la laïcité, targeting religious symbols, his own government has picked targets, drawing up legislation meant to discourage the wearing of veils in public institutions.

As traditional French-Canadian fiddle music played, Mr. Charest toured a country fair near Montebello, Que. Alexandre, a French-speaking immigrant from sub-Saharan Africa who lives in Montreal and declined to give his family name, was watching with his wife and teenage children.

He said Mr. Charest takes ethnic voters for granted while the PQ reacts to every difficult case with a call for draconian legislation that casts Quebec’s 650,000 visible minorities into a bad light to their fellow citizens.

"Every problem and every abuse gets lumped together, overdramatized and triggers an overreaction," Alexandre said. "Cultural communities are too frequently cast as a danger. It’s a problem."

Mr. Charest doesn’t need a big push to proclaim the beauty of a diverse society, as he showed answering a question Sunday: "It is a positive thing. Diversity is a positive thing. It enriches our lives, gives us a further reach in the world, both as Quebeckers and Canadians."

With nine days left in a tight campaign hanging on middle-of-the-road white francophone voters, just don’t expect him to be pushed into a Sikh temple or Caribbean festival.

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