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Dead caribou are pictured near the Inuit town of Kuujjuaq in this 1984 file photo.

In Quebec politics, it matters whether you're a caribou or a kangaroo.

This came up again on Wednesday night, in a key moment in the final televised debate of the Quebec election campaign, pitting François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec against Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois.

Mr. Legault, a former PQ member, criticized Ms. Marois as being beholden to radical elements in the separatist movement.

"So if the caribou take us into the ravine, you're going to say 'Yes'," Mr. Legault told Ms. Marois.

He was alluding to a 1984 natural disaster in northern Quebec.

Late in September of that year, a herd of 10,000 caribou drowned while trying to cross the Caniapiscau river, near the Inuit town of Kuujjuaq. At the time, the PQ, still reeling from the defeat of the 1980 referendum and its loss of popularity after two electoral mandates, was split between hardliners who wanted to keep emphasizing the fight for independence and those who wanted to soft-pedal the party's raison d'être.

The lemming-like behaviour of the caribou has since been used to mock the hardliners – who are also dubbed "les purs et durs," or "pure and hard" because they are willing to risk plunging into a referendum fight even if the current is against them.

The other faction, meanwhile, were mocked as "kangaroos" because, like marsupials who store their babies in their pouches, they are hiding what is dearest to them.

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