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Quebec parties hones messages ahead of leaders' debate

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault, flanked by candidates, waves to awaiting supporters as he arrives at a news conference in Quebec City, Sunday, August 12, 2012. Quebecers are going to the polls on Sept. 4.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

One third of the way into the Quebec election campaign, the three major parties are focusing on decidedly different messages they believe are crucial to target the voters they need to form the next government.

For Liberal Leader Jean Charest, the focus is on integrity. On Sunday, he announced new measures to show he was serious about eliminating corruption in the awarding of government contracts, an issue that has become the defining theme so far in the campaign. .

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, who has set aside the issue of sovereignty this campaign, moved to consolidate her lead among the vital francophone voters who will decide the outcome of the Sept. 4 election. She announced new measures that would toughen Quebec's language law, Bill 101, an issue that touches the nationalist fibre of many francophone voters.

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François Legault, the Leader of the fledgling Coalition Avenir Quebec who faces an uphill battle in proving to voters that his party has the experience to govern, released his party's election platform, unveiling 94 commitments that include a promise to eradicate corrupt practices in the construction industry, changes to the province's labour laws and tougher sentences for criminals.

Mr. Charest, however, may be facing the biggest challenge of all in convincing Quebeckers that his government is serious about eliminating corruption.

"We have fought effectively against collusion and corruption," Mr. Charest said on Sunday. "For more than two years we have put in place a number of measures that have produced results."

Mr. Charest promised to table legislation that would bar any company charged with fraud or a serious criminal offence from tendering on government construction contracts. The same would apply to a company with ties to a director or major shareholder facing similar charges. If they are found guilty, the company would be barred from obtaining government contracts.

In Montreal on Sunday, Ms. Marois cited statistics by the Office québécois de la langue française, the government agency that oversees the enforcement of the language law, that showed between 2010 and 2012 the proportion of merchants in Montreal who welcome their customers in French dropped from 89 per cent to 74 per cent.

"The message has to be clear: In Quebec we live in French, we work in French, we communicate in French," Ms. Marois said during a campaign stop in Montreal on Sunday.

Ms. Marois said that if elected, the PQ would increase the powers of the language agency and extend language regulations to smaller companies, those that employ between 11 and 50 employees.

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As well, francophone students and those from immigrant families who must attend French-language schools will be required to enroll in French-language post-secondary colleges known as CEGEPs. Under the existing law, post-secondary education students can choose the language of education after graduating from high school.

In Quebec students must complete a two-year program in a CEGEP if they wish to attend university.

"Currently half of the enrolments in English-language colleges are students whose mother tongue is one other than English. Of all the students whose mother tongue is neither French nor English, half choose English-language colleges. This situation has to be remedied," Ms. Marois said.

A PQ government would also abolish bridging schools that allow for those who have the financial means to send their children to a private English-language elementary school for a few years in order to become eligible to attend a publicly funded English language school.

While the CAQ also promises measures to protect the French language, its election platform took aim at labour organizations.

Mr. Legault promised to change the labour code to require the holding of a secret vote by employees before a union can receive official recognition in a workplace. The current system requires unions to convince a majority of employees to sign membership cards.

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The leaders will take part in a television debate Sunday that will include the smaller parties represented in the National Assembly. Three other debates will be held on the following days, each between two leaders of the three major parties. Mr. Charest and Ms. Marois will lock horns in the first debate, followed by Mr. Legault's turn to go toe to toe with Mr. Charest. The last debate will feature Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault.

With a file from the Canadian Press

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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