The uneasy debate over "reasonable accommodation" for immigrants, including what religious symbols they can wear, burst into the Quebec election campaign on Wednesday.
It found fuel from a mayor's racially charged comments, a candidate's distaste for the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly, and the Parti Québécois's pledge to ban civil servants' religious garb.
While trying to avoid the appearance of pandering, Quebec's political leaders are carefully entering the fray trying to tap into a feeling on the part of some middle-class francophone voters, mainly outside the cities, that newcomers should have to adhere more closely to the provincial culture and values.
They've found it's a difficult debate to control.
The PQ's Pauline Marois embraced the issue this week by reviving a pledge to create a Charter of Quebec Secularism that would ban civil servants from wearing obvious religious signs such as turbans or hijabs.
But then a star PQ candidate, Djemila Benhabib, said that for consistency, she would also like a PQ government to remove the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly. She added later that she supports her party's position that the religious icon should remain as a symbol of Quebec's cultural heritage.
The mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, waded in during a radio interview on Wednesday. "What's outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who's come here from Algeria, and we can't even pronounce her name," Mr. Tremblay said.
Even after host Paul Arcand interjected that his comments smacked of racism and xenophobia – and helpfully told him how to pronounce Benhabib – Mr. Tremblay pressed on. "They're making our culture and religion disappear everywhere. You don't realize that," he said.
The incident provoked a demand for an apology from the PQ's Ms. Marois, saying the comments were "irresponsible and unacceptable." But Ms. Marois and Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault also blamed Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest, saying he failed to settle the reasonable accommodations issue in his years as premier.
"It is precisely because the government hasn't taken any decisions, hasn't clarified certain aspects of its policies that it has created divisions," Ms. Marois said.
In the 2007 election campaign, the now defunct Action démocratique du Québec capitalized on the reasonable accommodation debate, driving a wedge into the province's political landscape that reduced the PQ to third party status and the Liberals to a minority government. After a commission report in 2008 on Quebec's so-called identity crisis, the issue slowly disappeared from the political radar.
The commission recommended that the government define the secular status of the province and improve measures to counter discrimination. The report also recommended that judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison guards be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. Teachers, nurses and doctors should be allowed to wear such symbols, the commission said.
But each time the Charest government attempted to tackle the issue, it created a backlash even within its own party.
All parties have sought to address the issue in some way. They know that the silent-majority, middle-class francophone voters that the Liberal leader said will re-elect his government want some nod to their concerns. Just as Mr. Legault has sought to win them by encroaching on Mr. Charest's platform and appealing to their economic concerns, Ms. Marois is seeking to address their worries about Quebec's identity.
On Wednesday, Mr. Charest warily sought to tamp down the issue by promising to revive a bill that would bar government employees providing service to the public from having their faces covered, but not from wearing turbans, hijabs and kepas. The Liberals – faced with stiff opposition from within their own ranks – allowed it to die on the order paper.
Mr. Charest added that the National Assembly crucifix is a symbol of Quebec history, and should stay. MNAs voted unanimously to keep it.
Later in the afternoon, Mr. Charest told reporters he hadn't heard Mr. Tremblay's comments, even though the remarks received high-profile coverage. "In Quebec, we're all equal," he said.
But even at the campaign event Mr. Charest was attending, one supporter agreed with Mr. Tremblay. Giselle Pothier came to see Mr. Charest visit a local vineyard – invited by her sister, a local Liberal supporter – and distribute copies of a prayer for Mr. Charest's re-election. She said she agreed with Mr. Tremblay.
"I agree 100 per cent," she said. "We are believers. We should not let ourselves be influenced by those who arrive from the outside, to change our mentalities, and impose theirs. Our heritage must be respected, and the crucifix should remain in view."