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Quebec Premier François Legault arrives at his desk for Question Period on June 9, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

When Dominique Anglade became the Leader of the Quebec Liberal Party last month, a historic step forward for equality was buried under an avalanche of sad statistics as the province grappled with Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.

Ms. Anglade, who won the job by acclamation after the only other candidate in the race dropped out, is the first woman to lead the party in its 153-year history. She is also Black and the daughter of Haitian immigrants in a province whose top institutions are still dominated by white men descended from 17th-century French colonists.

Still, Ms. Anglade’s odds of winning next election remain low. The QLP holds no ridings outside of non-francophone Quebec. Recent polls place support for Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec at more than 60 per cent among francophone voters. The QLP barely cracks double digits. Although all but two of her 15 predecessors as leader went on to serve as premier, Ms. Anglade faces a steep challenge if she is to avoid becoming the third.

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Such is the extent to which Mr. Legault has come to dominate Quebec politics since the party he founded in 2011 won power 20 months ago. His approval rating was slightly dented as the coronavirus death toll mounted in long-term care homes, but it remains through the roof. Not since René Lévesque have Quebeckers seemed to like their premier this much.

This explains why Mr. Legault was in no hurry last week to concede that systemic racism exists within Quebec society. Unlike Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who quickly changed his tune after initially denying the existence of systemic racism in Canada, Mr. Legault has continued to insist there is no “system of discrimination” against visible minorities in Quebec.

Although thousands of people marched in Montreal on Sunday to argue otherwise, Mr. Legault’s own political base is with him on this one. While his refusal to state the obvious drew guffaws among many Montreal-based media commentators, others defended the Premier.

“This murky concept [of systemic racism] has no scientific value. Its principal function is to associate all forms of resistance toward multiculturalism with racism,” prominent Quebecor Media columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté wrote last week. “When you search pseudo-scientific literature on systemic racism, you find that the main proof [offered for] its existence lies in the fact of [others] not recognizing it.”

Quebec nationalists have always dismissed Ottawa’s official policy of multiculturalism as a political strategy aimed at winning votes among ethnic Canadians. So, it should hardly come as a surprise that the concept of systemic racism so eagerly embraced by Prime Minster Justin Trudeau would be a harder sell in Quebec than the rest of Canada.

This was clear in debate over Bill 21, the law Mr. Legault’s government passed last year to ban public-sector employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. The law might easily be held up as an example of systemic discrimination, since it institutionalizes barriers faced by certain Muslim women. But it remains extremely popular among francophone Quebeckers, most of whom live outside Montreal.

The political divide between Montreal, long the home of the province’s anglophone elite, and the rest of Quebec has always been a large one. But it has grown in recent years as the city became the destination for thousands of immigrants from North Africa and Haiti. White francophones who live in Montreal’s hip Plateau Mont-Royal or Rosemont neighbourhoods tend to be far more progressive in their politics than their relatives in the suburbs.

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This clash in values between Montrealers and other Quebeckers risks putting the province on a path toward the extreme political polarization that has destabilized the United States and many European countries. Mr. Legault may not need to win over voters in Montreal to keep his job in 2022. But unless he wants his province to descend into civil war, he will need to make greater efforts to bridge the political gap between Montreal and the rest of Quebec.

He took a tentative step in that direction this week by promising to soon release an action plan for combating racism that could include police reforms. But in calling for “quiet evolution” of Quebec society, in contrast to the province’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Mr. Legault appeared to minimize the importance of the issue. He will need to do much better than that.

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