Justin Trudeau jumped right in, while Thomas Mulcair proceeded with caution.
As they continue to audition for the job of prime minister, both opposition leaders had opportunities last month to take on the Parti Québécois plan to ban provincial workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. The leaders of the Liberal Party and the NDP went at it in their distinct fashions, offering clues as to how they plan to appeal to the Canadian electorate, and how they would govern the country.
Unlike Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has shown that Conservatives can win a majority with a minimal presence in Quebec, the path to victory in 2015 for the two Quebec-based leaders involves winning a large number of seats in their home province.
At stake are votes in francophone ridings in Quebec, but also their images across the country, where the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is widely seen as sacrosanct and where political leaders are judged on their handling of the separatist threat.
Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair ended up with near-identical positions this week – an all-out condemnation of the plan, with neither of them trying to assuage Quebeckers who favour the Charter of Quebec Values. However, their starting points were at polar opposites.
The major elements of the PQ plan first came to light on Aug. 20 in a story in Le Journal de Montréal that contained most of the details of the proposal, including stopping women from wearing veils throughout the provincial government.
Mr. Mulcair hesitated to fire up a fight with the PQ over what he called a “trial balloon.” In so doing, he showcased a desire to avoid high-stakes battles with the separatist movement, betting that federalist forces don’t benefit when they engage in an “us versus them” battle with the PQ. Mr. Mulcair’s feeling was the PQ wanted to fuel outrage in the rest of Canada, which could then be used to convince Quebeckers of the need for independence.
“When there is something concrete on the table, I’ll have no hesitation to respond to it,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters last month.
The following day, Mr. Trudeau jumped right in. After a meeting with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, he attacked the plan head-on, choosing to take the fight to the PQ rather than to wait for a formal proposal.
“I have enormous concerns about the limits that would be imposed on people, on their religion and on their freedom of expression,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The attack exposed Mr. Trudeau’s strengths and weaknesses. While he has a knack for attracting media attention, he also stumbled a week later when he compared the Charter of Quebec Values to segregation laws in the U.S. five decades ago. The improvised comment – which he clarified one day later – fuelled the notion that he sometimes goes too far in attacking sovereigntists, potentially alienating the province’s nationalist electorate that could be lured back into the Liberal fold.
Once the PQ plan became an official proposal on Tuesday, however, Mr. Mulcair quickly stepped out of a caucus meeting in Saskatoon to denounce it. His voice quivering and his eyes filled with anger, he said the proposal “confirms our worst fears.”
By that point, Mr. Mulcair reached Mr. Trudeau in showcasing his outrage at the PQ plan. Contrary to what some analysts predicted, the NDP didn’t take a nuanced position in a bid to salvage its seats in francophone Quebec.
The Conservatives took a wait-and-see approach to the debate last month, only to take an aggressive stand on Tuesday. If the Charter of Quebec Values is officially adopted, the federal government will launch a legal challenge.
Still, the differing strategies allowed Mr. Trudeau to stake his ground early, forcing his opponents to play catch-up, and try to convince Canadians who oppose the charter that their cautious approach was the right one.