There is a sense in the Montreal Jewish community that Quebec has entered a new era with the election of a majority Liberal government on April 7. Whether the defeat of the Parti Quebecois after 18 months in office was a rejection of its proposed Charter of Values or the possibility of another sovereignty referendum or, in fact, a show of support for Philippe Couillard’s offer of a more stable, focused government, Quebec has emerged from under the cloud of partisan strife.
Public opinions polls in the latter half of the 33-day campaign showed the Liberals were steadily gaining in popularity, yet few federalists dared count on the party’s capturing 70 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly and more than 41 percent of the popular vote.
Immediately following the election, community leaders were already speaking of a more positive climate, in which Jews “view themselves as part and parcel of Quebec and see their future here,” said Luciano Del Negro, Quebec vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “The charter had broken a modus vivendi in Quebec in which we had acknowledged the French fact…. But all of a sudden, you not only had to speak French, but kowtow to the government in how you express your religious beliefs.”
The new government, Del Negro added, must move swiftly to repair the damage caused by the “toxic” debate over the launching of the charter last August by the PQ. Bill 60 was tabled in November.
The charter, said Del Negro, was not the major election issue. Rather, the result of the election was a clear rejection of what he saw as the PQ’s cynical ploy to stir up anxiety over the growth of religious minorities in order to get a majority and then create favorable conditions for a third referendum on sovereignty. “This is a resounding vote of confidence that we are all Quebecers, it’s the defeat of a divisive vision…. It’s not so much the end of the independence movement, but that the PQ is no longer seen as representing a force for progress, especially among the young.”
The strength of the third-party Coalition Avenir Québec, which gained four seats, is also indicative of the desire for a new way, he continued. “The PQ was the architect of its own demise. It threw away its principles. It sold its soul…. It’s a bit ironic that the party that was musing about firing workers [who might defy the charter’s ban on religious symbols among public employees] got fired themselves.”
The Jewish community’s tepid relations with Premier Pauline Marois soured during the campaign when she refused to repudiate comments by PQ candidate Louise Mailloux, who was accused of antisemitism for alleging that kashrut certification is, essentially, a religious racket in which Quebecers are victims. Mailloux, a college philosophy teacher, finished second, but almost 10,000 votes behind the incumbent, François David of Québec solidaire.
Del Negro said there is some history between the Liberal leader and the community from Couillard’s stint as health minister in Jean Charest’s government and since he became leader last year. “He has always been available to the community to discuss the charter and other matters,” Del Negro said. “We look forward to his being the premier of all Quebecers.”
Nevertheless, the possibility of some kind of new legislation reinforcing the principles of state neutrality and providing a framework for dealing with reasonable accommodation requests from religious groups can’t be ruled out. In January, the Liberal party issued its policy on the issue, which emphasized the necessity of public employees who represent state authority, such as police officers and prison guards, being permitted to wear religious symbols only after they have made the effort to “integrate.”
Couillard, a neurosurgeon who once practised in Saudi Arabia, stated at the time: “Our position hinges on respect for what we are and for what defines us collectively, historically and culturally. I understand and share concerns expressed by Quebecers regarding the rise of religious fundamentalism.”
The Liberal position is that the primacy of state religious neutrality be included in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (as Bill 60 proposed) and that any accommodation made for a person’s religious beliefs be in keeping with that tenet, as well as respect for gender equality. It was a Liberal government under Charest that a few years ago tabled Bill 94, which would have banned face coverings in the delivery or receipt of public services. It died on the order paper. Contrary to assumptions about the popularity of the charter, most recent polls found 63 percent in favor in Montreal and about 53 percent overall.
“I think the government should exercise extreme caution in re-opening the charter of rights,” said Del Negro. “There is a consensus in Quebec on state secularism, the need for a framework to resolve reasonable accommodation requests, and on the equality of men and women, but the charter of rights is there fundamentally to protect minorities…. The Jewish community has always been incredibly cautious in dealing with the charter of rights. It believes it is adequate. There is de facto recognition of state secularism and the human rights commission has jurisdiction to deal with reasonable accommodation.”
The sole Jewish MNA, Liberal David Birnbaum, took 92 percent of the vote in Montreal’s D’Arcy McGee, the only riding with a Jewish majority. There is speculation that the newcomer could be named to the cabinet, possibly to the education portfolio.
Birnbaum, 58, was director general of the Quebec English School Boards Association and is a past executive director of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec Region. He replaces Lawrence Bergman, who resigned at the start of the campaign after 20 years in office.
Elsewhere, the fourth-party Québec solidaire (QS) elected a third member for the first time in its short history, Manon Massé in Ste. Marie-St. Jacques by a narrow 91 votes.
Massé, who has been a social justice activist for 30 years, was aboard the Canadian boat that was part of an international flotilla that attempted to reach Gaza in 2011. QS supported that unsuccessful effort to break the Israeli blockade and the left-wing sovereigntist party officially endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. Ste. Marie-St. Jacques is in the Plateau Mont-Royal, and encompasses the block on St. Denis Street where the Le Marcheur and Naot shoe stores are located, which have been targets of BDS demonstrators in the last few years. As well, QS MNA Amir Khadir, an outspoken critic of Israel, was reelected for a third term in the neighboring Mercier riding.
Nevertheless, CIJA said they want to keep the channels of communication open with all parties. “We have a fundamental disagreement with the QS … but as long as it is kept civil and honest, we can agree to disagree,” Del Negro said.
B’nai Brith Canada also believes this is a time to “mend fences” and hopes Couillard will reach out to all Quebecers to allow them to “feel at home in the province once more.”
Moise Moghrabi, Quebec chair of the organization’s League for Human Rights, said the new government has to begin to heal the rifts caused by “one of the most divisive campaigns in Quebec history.”
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