Until this week, Quebec Premier François Legault had avoided sticking his nose into the federal election campaign. Sure, he released a list of provincial “demands” he wanted the party leaders to address, as is the norm for holders of his office. But he ordered members of his Coalition Avenir Québec caucus to steer clear of federal politics and vowed to do so himself.
Monday’s English-language leaders’ debate, however, changed all that. As Justin Trudeau provided the clearest signal yet that a re-elected Liberal government would intervene in a constitutional challenge of Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans some provincial employees from wearing religious symbols, the CAQ Premier could no longer contain himself.
“He boasted about being the only [leader] ready to contest Bill 21, as if he wanted to distinguish himself from the others,” Mr. Legault said of Mr. Trudeau’s debate performance. “I find it quite special that he would go against the popular will of Quebeckers.”
With that, Mr. Legault seemed to define the ballot question for francophone Quebeckers. Polls show they overwhelmingly endorse the law that prohibits public employees in positions of authority, including teachers, from wearing any religious garment. And they bristle at being called names just because they hold to their secularist convictions.
As the only federal party that supports Bill 21, the Bloc Québécois is benefiting from the crystallization of what francophone Quebeckers consider to be the stakes in this election. Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet frames it this way: Quebeckers are once again being disrespected by the rest of Canada. It has lit a fire under the Bloc’s poll numbers.
Mr. Blanchet leads an officially sovereigntist party, but he does not talk about separation. Rather, he has hitched his party’s wagon to the CAQ, whose non-confrontational nationalism is based on an assertion of Quebeckers’ distinct identity rather than independence. Bill 21 is a manifestation of that, which is why any attack on the law rankles so many of them.
A question put to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh by journalist Althia Raj during the English-language debate was seized on by several francophone commentators as an example of the rest of Canada’s “contempt” for Quebec. In her preamble, Ms. Raj characterized Bill 21 as a “discriminatory law” and asked Mr. Singh, who has been vague about whether an NDP government would join a court challenge of the legislation, if he was putting his “own party’s interests in Quebec ahead of [his] principles and equality rights of all citizens.”
Journal de Montréal columnist Richard Martineau, who had indicated in a previous column that he would vote for the Bloc, accused Ms. Raj of passing judgment on the law before the courts had. “For this lady, the case has already been heard. And Bill 21 is discriminatory,” he wrote. “And so, the 70 per cent of Quebeckers who support it are racists.”
In its heyday, the Bloc successfully translated perceptions of disrespect toward Quebec into a majority of federal seats in the province. That recipe appeared to have run its course by 2011, when the NDP swept Quebec. The Bloc spent the following seven years in the political wilderness, questioning its own existence. Not anymore.
With polls now showing the Bloc leading among francophone voters, the party appears poised to double if not triple the 10 seats it held when Parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives, who had set their sights on winning as many as two dozen Quebec ridings, are now staring at potential losses among the 11 seats they held at dissolution. Gains made in 2015 by the Liberals in francophone ridings in the Laurentians and lower St. Lawrence River region are now threatened by the Bloc’s resurgence and the NDP’s collapse. Of the NDP’s 14 remaining seats in Quebec, the party appears competitive in only a single Montreal riding.
In English Canada, Mr. Singh won kudos for a strong debate performance during which he highlighted his personal experiences with discrimination. In Quebec, however, the NDP Leader’s coy responses to questions concerning Bill 21 were a tougher sell. In a Tuesday night interview on Radio-Canada’s Téléjournal, anchor Céline Galipeau repeatedly pressed Mr. Singh to come clean on where he stands on intervening in a court challenge of the legislation.
“I do not want to intervene,” he replied, three times in a row, which sounded too clever by half. “What I want to do, clearly, is win people’s hearts.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Singh, the Bloc seems to have beat him to it.