Already a volatile, mud-slinging affair, the Quebec election entered its last week of campaigning with the confused musings of a woman fretting that her aquafit class was threatened by alleged wealthy Muslim McGill students.
The comments came from former broadcaster Janette Bertrand, whom the Parti Québécois trotted out at a weekend campaign brunch in a bid to steer the campaign back into a debate about identity and secular values. Ms. Bertrand is a staunch supporter of the PQ's proposed Charter of Values.
The confusion and mockery that followed illustrate the complications with the strategic gamble the PQ assumed in emphasizing identity politics and wedge tactics in their pursuit of a majority government.
Ms. Bertrand, who arrived at the brunch arm-in-arm with party leader Pauline Marois, startled journalists by describing how two men, presumably Muslims, wouldn't use her apartment building's pool when they saw her and a female friend doing their aqua-fitness class.
"Well, suppose they leave, and go see the owner," Ms. Bertrand said, speculating the landlord would be happy to have such "rich McGill students" in the building. "Then they ask, 'Well, can we have a day,' and they will pay … And then in a few months, it's them who have all the pool time."
Though Ms. Bertrand was quickly ridiculed in some quarters, Ms. Marois kept silent. The PQ Leader similarly never condemned the words of one of her candidates, Louise Mailloux, an uncompromising atheist who believes that kosher and halal certifications are hidden taxes that finance religious conflicts.
The identity game has been profitable for the PQ ever since it tabled its charter of secular values, with its contentious proposal to bar public-sector workers from wearing conspicuous religious headgear. The charter's rise in popularity among the key francophone electorate coincided with the PQ's resurgence in the polls last fall, laying the groundwork for Ms. Marois' election call this spring.
Ms. Marois spent the first part of the campaign on the defensive as Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard successfully raised the spectre of another sovereignty referendum to gain a lead in the polls. Steering the campaign back to the identity debate was a way to refocus public attention on the perceived weakness of the Liberals, who are disparaged as not being strong defenders of Quebeckers' cultural and linguistic status. Mr. Couillard's rivals are already portraying him as being tone deaf because he didn't argue more forcefully for French language rights in last week's leaders debate.
In an article published Monday, veteran La Presse political journalist Vincent Marissal corroborated the suspicions of many observers when he reported that the charter of values was part of an electoral strategy born years ago, following the PQ's historic collapse in the 2007 election.
Back then, the PQ had bet on André Boisclair, a young, gay urbanite as its leader. Despite a gaffe-free campaign, he left the PQ with its lowest score in three decades as the party got blindsided by Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec success in speaking against accommodations for religious minorities.
The La Presse article and other media reports have identified the root of the PQ's "virage identitaire" to the influence of a handful of intellectuals, such as the sociologists Jacques Beauchemin and Mathieu Bock-Côté and the historian Éric Bédard. The latter two have columns in the media platforms of former Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau, whose ties to the current movement was reported to predate the announcement that he would run as a PQ candidate.
The article quotes an unnamed source who was part of high-level discussions in the Marois government and confirmed that once the PQ has a majority, the charter would be used as a lever for sovereignty, stoking feelings against Ottawa once it is quashed by the courts.
Mr. Couillard on Monday seized on the article to denounce the charter as "one of the most cynical political moves Quebec has seen in decades."
Ms. Marois denied her party was trying to start squabbles with the federal government. "What we want is Ottawa to respect our rights."
Beyond the rhetoric, the charter has drastically reshaped the demographics of the PQ.
The party used to boast that it represented a movement of young people while the federalist side was more popular among older, less audacious voters.
Just before the 2007 election, the PQ was highly popular among younger people, with 46 per cent of support among those 24 and under.
Today, the PQ is most popular among older francophones.
A Léger poll last week found that only 29 per cent of respondents in the 24 and under age group intended to vote for the PQ.
Instead, the party's popularity increased with the age of the respondents: 32 per cent support for those 45 to 54, then 41 per cent for those over 55.
Ms. Bertrand, who spoke of her fears about Muslim men at her swimming pool, is 89. Another defender of the charter is former Supreme Court of Canada justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, who is 86.
Both women are part of a generation of trail-blazing Quebeckers who rejected the heavy-handed presence of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec and ushered in more gender equality. Their attitudes are reflected in the strong secular streak found among many francophones and their lack of patience for immigrant's religious devotion.
Clinching the support of older francophones is crucial in a provincial election because of the way ridings are drawn in Quebec.
But the stakes would be different in a referendum. It speaks to the challenge facing the PQ that, after a decade of Liberal governance and repeated allegations of scandals, Ms. Marois only managed to eke out a minority in 2012 and has struggled in this campaign.
Tu Thanh Ha, a Globe reporter in Toronto, previously covered Quebec affairs between 1991 and 2008.