Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Konrad Yakabuski

Konrad Yakabuski

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

In Quebec, security changes the game plan Add to ...

Justin Trudeau’s true “just watch me” moment came not with the evocation of his father’s famous words to a fellow passenger on a 2013 plane ride, after the man asked him whether he could beat Stephen Harper. Nor did it come with his head-hurting embrace of Tory turncoat Eve Adams.

The Liberal Leader truly demonstrated how far he’ll go to win when he threw the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under the bus in a rush to back the Conservatives’ new anti-terrorism legislation. Mr. Trudeau hedged a bit, mumbling something about promising more oversight in a future Liberal election platform. But his unambiguous stand in favour of C-51 contrasts sharply with his previously muddy positions on terrorism and the Islamic State.

Blame Quebec. Voters in the normally pacifist province have lined up squarely behind C-51, with 74 per cent expressing support for the bill in a Léger Marketing online poll conducted earlier this month. Quebeckers have usually been the most militarily reticent Canadians; nearly three-quarters opposed Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. But fully 62 per cent now back Canada’s role in Iraq bombing Islamic State targets.

Last fall’s attacks on soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa, both perpetrated by radicalized lone wolves from Quebec, have concentrated minds in the province. Intercepting would-be terrorists seems to have taken precedence over the protection of civil liberties.

Last month’s Paris attacks and the rise of radical Islam in France have also resonated more strongly in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. Like France, Quebec is a fiercely secularist society confronted with a growing Muslim population that does not share its distrust of religion. This alone might create tensions. But coupled with rising concerns about radical Islam and the impolitic utterances of crackpot clerics, a xenophobia-tinged climate of fear is taking hold.

This is shuffling the political deck in Quebec. The biggest beneficiaries might well be the federal Conservatives, whose support has risen sharply, albeit from a dismally low base. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s troops can now talk about a mini-breakthrough in Quebec without getting laughed out of the room. The party is targeting about 15 seats, up from the five it won in 2011.

Security’s rise to the top of the federal political agenda in Quebec has upset Liberal and New Democratic game plans. Depicting Mr. Harper as a warmonger no longer works. A leader who’s tough on terrorism is exactly what Quebeckers are looking for – the tougher the better.

For Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals – who have the most room to grow in Quebec, having won a record low seven seats in 2011 – the choice is clear. Backing C-51 may not be consistent with the kind of leadership Mr. Trudeau promised to deliver, but it’s consistent with a party that rapidly adopted the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act in response to 9/11. And the Liberal base can live with it.

C-51 has left NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in a bind, however. With giants of the left like Ed Broadbent exhorting Parliament to “vote it down,” warning that “our rights as citizens are at stake,” Mr. Muclair can hardly ask his MPs to simply abstain. But taking a hard line against C-51 could scare off Quebec voters.

And Quebec remains at the heart of the NDP’s election strategy. A recent La Presse report suggested that the party is targeting 60 ridings in the province, one more than it won in 2011. That compares to the 40 seats the party has in its sights in Ontario and the 20 it aims to win in B.C.

Outside Quebec, the New Democratic base can’t abide by anything other than an unambiguous rejection of C-51. How Mr. Mulcair aims to square that with a Quebec electorate overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation may require contortions worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

So far, he has tried evoking Pierre Trudeau’s implementation of the War Measures Act – the original just-watch-me moment – to point out the risks of anti-terror overreach. During the 1970 October Crisis, soldiers patrolled the streets and hundreds were jailed without charge. The incident defined the elder Mr. Trudeau for a generation of Quebec federalists and separatists alike, and informed their views on civil liberties.

But all that seems like ancient history in today’s Quebec, with its witch hunt on radical Islam.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular