Quebec voters challenge Justin Trudeau over his stance on Bill 21 –

Quebec voters challenge Justin Trudeau over his stance on Bill 21 -
Quebecs religious symbols ban a lifeline for Bloc, stink bomb for Liberals: Nanos
Justin Trudeau's election bus rolled into Saint-Hubert, Que., on Friday as he sought to woo NDP voters in a riding where even the sitting MP has abandoned the New Democrats.

The New Democrats' sliding fortunes in Quebec prompted the incumbent here, Pierre Nantel, to defect to the Greens on the eve of the election call. The riding of Longueuil-Saint-Hubert is just one of a long list of NDP-held seats that the Liberals have targeted.

Trudeau will also have to tread carefully when it comes to Quebec Premier François Legaults Coalition Avenir Québec government. There are pressures from the left of the (Liberal) party and from some people outside of Quebec to criticize Bill 21, the new provincial law that bans some government employees, including new teachers, from wearing religious symbols. The issue flared in the first week of the campaign. Trudeau reiterated his opposition to Bill 21 and did not close the door to a federal challenge to Bill 21. That irked Legault, who had urged federal politicians to butt out. On Friday, Legault said it will be up to Quebecers to decide who to trust on secularism — him or Trudeau. The CAQs decision to slash immigration has also sparked controversy. But, Béland noted, if you want to go after francophone votes (in Quebec), you have to be very careful how you play your cards, especially when dealing with Legaults government, which remains quite popular.

Quebec voters challenge Justin Trudeau over his stance on Bill 21

"All Canadians have a clear choice to make," Trudeau told a crowd of supporters at candidate Réjean Hébert's campaign office Friday. "Do we continue to move forward? Do we continue to do the hard work together? Or do we go backwards? Do we go back to the Stephen Harper approach?"

Quebecers took a conservative turn when they elected Legaults CAQ provincially last fall. But that was based on nationalism and the desire to protect the French language by changing immigration policies, Béland said. The province’s shift to the right won’t necessarily benefit Scheer because the CAQ’s victory wasn’t about “protecting the energy sector and criticism of environmental policies.” Other prime ministers have managed to win over Quebec nationalists, Brian Mulroney most successfully. But “it’s hard for Scheer, a politician from Saskatchewan, to reach out to them. (He could attract votes) on immigration, the economy, deficits, but it’s a tough battle.” In one area where he could score points, immigration, “he has to be careful what he’s saying because it could hurt him elsewhere in the country.”

Canada votes 2019: What each leader must do to win in Quebec

Harper isn't on the ballot of course. But Trudeau wants Canadians to think of Harper when they see Andrew Scheer.

“In Quebec, there are a lot of parties in contention because you have the Bloc so I think that (Elizabeth May) is probably very happy with the numbers she sees,” Béland said. “Even if she doesn’t win any seats in Quebec, it (would be) significant to be ahead of the NDP, the party that in 2011 won the most seats in the province. That would be quite a pretty strong performance.” Last month, May solidified her Quebec team by convincing Quebec MP Pierre Nantel — an NDP MP since 2011 — to run for the Greens. But Nantels arrival sparked controversy after he told an interviewer that he favours Quebec sovereignty. Questioned about that at her campaign launch, May insisted Nantel isnt a separatist and said  the Greens would not have a candidate who thinks they can work to break up our country.

The opening days of this campaign saw Trudeau repeat that message at rallies in NDP-held ridings in Vancouver and Edmonton and on the doorstep of the Montreal-area riding held for the NDP by Hélène Laverdière, who isn't running again. Trudeau was introduced at the Montreal rally by environmentalist Stephen Guilbeault, a prime spot for the Liberals' high-profile candidate.

Trudeau rolled out his policy announcements in Esquimalt, B.C., and Trois-Rivières, Que. — where New Democrats are the incumbents.

But at nearly each of these stops, there have been signs of the challenges Trudeau faces in wooing enough progressive voters to swing these seats.

It’s unlikely Scheer can win over Montreal, a Liberal stronghold, but the Conservatives hope to make gains in some rural and suburban Quebec ridings, Béland said. History has shown that dramatic campaign swings are possible. In 2011, NDP leader Jack Layton managed to engineer an Orange Wave in part by shining as a guest on Tout le monde en parle, a popular Quebec talk show. “I’m not saying that there will be a Blue Wave in Quebec this time around,” Béland said, “but if Andrew Scheer for example appears on that show or does something else, he could maybe sway some Quebecers. For Scheer, the campaign could make a difference.”

Trudeau's rally speech in Vancouver Kingsway drew a crowd of more than a thousand supporters. But amidst the cheering, the Liberal leader was interrupted by a shouting Harrison Johnston. The 19-year-old Johnston is one of many opponents of the TMX pipeline in the greater Vancouver area.

In the 2015 election, Trudeau surpassed expectations in Quebec, winning 40  seats in the province. “This time around they might be able to actually increase that number if they can pick up the NDP seats that are very likely to fall,” Béland said. To make gains, Trudeau must “show that he cares about the environment because there is in Quebec, on the left at least, a negative reaction to the decision to buy (the) Trans Mountain (oil pipeline).” His green and progressive credentials are critical “because the Greens and the NDP could steal votes away from the Liberals, which in some ridings could help the Bloc.”

Johnston will vote for the first time in this election — his shouted question to Trudeau made it clear it won't be for the Liberals. 

“If the majority of people believe that he’s really overtly racist, he will be repellent. So he needs to find a way to show that he’s not necessarily against immigration in general, but he wants to reduce it,” he added. “He has to find a way to look like someone who’s not totally toxic. He’s not entirely toxic but at the same time, he sends messages to people on the far right and he’s attracting support from people who are racist. Some of his statements have been shocking. He’s maybe trying to have some Trump effect, hoping wedge issues will help him. But so far, it hasn’t worked that well.”

"In 11 years, when it's going to be the tipping point whether climate change becomes irreversible or not, will he be able to look his kids in the eye and tell them he did everything he could?" Johnston said after the rally.

But you can’t pin all the blame on Singh. The NDP’s decline in Quebec started in 2015. Now, with so few seats left in the province, the NDP is not seen as a major force, Béland said. And “here in Quebec and in other parts of the country, it’s really Scheer against Trudeau and the NDP is not perceived as a contender. The Liberals and the NDP are fighting for the same voters on the left and the centre left. That’s a big challenge for Singh in a race that looks more like a traditional race between the two dominant parties. 2015 was an exception where you had three parties in contention.”

The Liberals held a rally in Edmonton Strathcona because New Democrat Linda Duncan isn't running again, and they see a rare chance for a pickup in Alberta. But Liberal staff and security had to remove an angry heckler from the crowd as Trudeau was speaking. 

Political baggage accumulated over four years, his reputation damaged by his disastrous trip to India; his ethics violations related to the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist; and especially the SNC-Lavalin affair, Béland said. That scandal — Canada’s ethics watchdog ruled that Trudeau breached the federal conflict of interest law by improperly seeking to protect the engineering giant from prosecution — cost the prime minister dearly in some parts of Canada. But it did not sting him as much in Quebec, where voters generally saw his actions as improper but well-intentioned, Béland said.

Outside the Westbury Theatre that housed the rally, a crowd led by the United We Roll convoy organizer Patrick King voiced their displeasure with Trudeau's approach to the oil sector.

The Bloc has its challenges. In places like Montreal, many progressive voters who once opted for the Bloc have drifted to other parties. Then there’s the sovereignty issue. “Quite a few nationalists are not too happy about the Bloc and the fact that they have been in Ottawa for a long time and it hasn’t really promoted sovereignty in any significant way,” Béland said. “Support for sovereignty is really low now. And I think that’s the biggest challenge: How do you run your sovereignist party when people don’t really want to talk about sovereignty?”

In Quebec, Trudeau was asked repeatedly about difficult political issues such as Bill 21, the province's controversial secularism bill.

Though the Conservatives are slightly ahead of the Liberals nationally, Andrew Scheer’s support is highly concentrated in western Canada, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan where the party already enjoys overwhelming support and has little room to grow. That’s why, despite the overall lead, seat projections show that, at the moment, the Liberals are more likely to win more seats across Canada. Scheer is struggling in seat-rich Ontario, weighed down by unpopular Premier Doug Ford, a Progressive Conservative with close ties to the federal Conservatives.

Trudeau has condemned the bill as discriminatory, but said the federal government wouldn't intervene in the legal challenges.

In Quebec, Scheer has not made much progress, with Conservatives only strong in a few areas, including Quebec City. On hot-button issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and climate change, “there is a gap between Scheer’s image and preferences, and the way people in Quebec think,” Béland said. The fact that “he’s an anglophone from Saskatchewan is also a challenge. French is not his mother tongue and he’s not nearly as fluent as other leaders from outside of Quebec we have seen in the past.”

In Trois-Rivières, though, Trudeau said he wouldn't rule out intervening in the future — as Conservative Leader Scheer has done — calling it "irresponsible" to do so because Bill 21 deals with fundamental rights and freedoms 

The Bloc has wobbled in recent years. Martine Ouellet’s rocky tenure as leader led to an internal revolt; the sovereignist party almost collapsed. In January, a new leader took the helm: former Parti Québécois minister Yves-François Blanchet. Since Gilles Duceppe left in 2015, the Bloc has not had “a steady, strong leader. Blanchet is certainly a stronger leader and more effective than Ouellet. He’s an experienced politician. He doesn’t rock the boat (internally).”

"You know telling the truth has always a price," Hébert told reporters. "But we have to take positions. We have to take clear positions."

The Liberals' clear position, at least in the first 72 hours of this campaign, is that their path to a second majority relies heavily on gains at the NDP's expense.

Some have attributed Singh’s difficulties in Quebec to the fact that his religion is visible — a Sikh, he wears a turban — at a time when many in the province support a new provincial ban on some public servants wearing religious symbols. Singh has not helped the NDP cause by strongly criticizing Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. And his party is seen as even more pro-immigration than the Liberals, which could hurt in Quebec, Béland said.

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May faces the same hurdles in Quebec as she does in the rest of Canada. The Greens have no chance of taking power and it’s “kind of a one-trick pony that focuses on one issue,” Béland said. “I think they need to broaden their appeal and say the environment is part of a broader issues like the future of our economy, that it’s not just about the environment in the narrow sense. Otherwise, you only attract single-issue voters.”

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TORONTO — Quebecs ban on religious symbols is a lifeline for the Bloc Quebecois and a hell of a problem for the federal Liberals in the upcoming election, according to noted election watchers.

"The CAQ is in the process of fostering a nationalism without sovereignty. And that's the winning formula at the moment," said Jacques Beauchemin, a sociologist and former adviser to Marois whose writings also played a big role in the nationalist revival.

Pollster Nik Nanos said its imperative for the Liberals to pick up seats in Quebec that are currently held by the NDP and used to be Bloc strongholds. The Bloc will also be vying hard for those seats, setting up an interesting showdown over secularism and Quebec sovereignty.

According to a conservative nationalist reading of the past, this culture is defined by the solidarity forged among francophones fighting for their survival. And the legacy of this solidarity is a willingness to value collective rights over individual ones.

These are rural Quebec seats where nationalist sentiment runs strong, where support for the ban is strong and Im not sure the Liberals can effectively square the circle on being opposed to the ban, and then asking those very same voters to support the Liberals, said Nanos on the latest Trend Line podcast.

He has sworn off sovereignty since his days in the Parti Québécois, but the origins of the conservative nationalism that his government espouses can nevertheless be traced to the movement's most decisive moment: the night of the second referendum.

Nanos says it could be a stink bomb issue for the Liberals and he expects the Bloc will bombard voters with warnings that Trudeau will lie low on Bill 21 during the election, but will mount a court challenge if the Liberals get back in power.

The campaign was barely a few hours old when he demanded they renounce support for legal challenges to the secularism law his government passed in June — not just "for the moment," as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would, but forever.

This Bill 21 and the religious symbols is a lifeline to the Bloc Quebecois. It gives them something to talk about. It allows them to attack Ottawa.

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The Bloc can go after both the Liberals and the NDP, says Nanos, because the NDP is firmly against the ban. Leader Jagmeet Singh, who wears a turban himself, called it state-sanctioned discrimination on day one of the election campaign.

It's a political mindset that has displaced sovereignty as the main alternative to federalism and, as the first week of the campaign has already made clear, will define how the leaders court votes in the province this fall. 

Bill 21 prohibits people in positions of public authority from wearing religious symbols while at work. It would prevent a teacher, police officer or judge from wearing a hijab or turban, for example. Provincial legislators say it ensures religious neutrality and secularism in the public service.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have filed a legal challenge, arguing the bill is unconstitutional.

Bédard and others argued the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its application by federally appointed judges, was too accommodating of minorities, at the expense of a historically rooted Québécois culture.

Im totally against Bill 21. I dont think that in a free society we shouldnt legitimize or allow discrimination against anyone, Trudeau said Wednesday as he kicked off Liberal election campaign.

It's mainly worried that the combination of immigration and official multiculturalism will make francophone Quebec culture more vulnerable in an increasingly interconnected world where English is the lingua franca.

He said the court challenge shows the system is working as it should and that it would be counterproductive for Ottawa to intervene in a provincial debate.

At a campaign announcement in Quebec on Friday, however, Trudeau did not rule out a federal challenge.

It was a warning to steer well clear of a matter he considers to be solely within his jurisdiction, even though the law has raised constitutional concerns across the country, not to mention within Quebec itself.

I will highlight that were not going to close the door on intervening at a later date because I think it would be irresponsible for a federal government to close the door to intervention ever on a matter that does touch fundamental freedoms.

It helps explain why, when launching his campaign, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet began with a paean to the nationalism of the CAQ government. Sovereignty received only a second-order mention. 

Former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe told CTVs Power Play Thursday that Bill 21 poses a huge dilemma for Trudeau. If he says he will defend religious freedom, he will lose support in Quebec. But if he vows not to intervene, it could be a problem with the rest of Canada.

I guess if youre a federalist its kind of like that bad movie where you think the monsters dead and they come back to life, he said. For the Bloc Quebecois, what we know from a polling perspective is that usually onto themselves its hard for them to move the numbers. Theyre very good at reacting to events.

So if there is anti-French Canadian sentiment or negative things said about French language rights or a perception that Quebec is not getting its fair share in the federation, voters in Quebec then tend to support the Bloc, not out of ideology, but on a strategic nationalist or emotional basis.

There were those who were horrified and spent the ensuing years trying to expunge the movement of any hint of ethnic nationalism; trying to promote a more inclusive, civic-style nationalism instead. 

They vote for the Bloc in order to send a message to English Canada that they dont want English Canadians meddling in the affairs and society in the province of Quebec.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said a Conservative government will not intervene in Bill 21, but that a federal government under his leadership would not enact similar legislation.

Scheer has set his sights on gaining ground in Quebec, even opening his official campaign in Trois-Rivieres, a riding not held by a Conservative in decades. He vowed to surprise people by winning seats all over Quebec.

Quebec is a key battleground for the NDP, which mounted a surge there in the last election, taking 14 seats and edging past the Conservatives 11 and the Blocs 10.

Nanos says Singhs approach to talking about Bill 21 is clever. Singh highlighted how he stands out as a candidate, just as Quebec is different from the rest of Canada. He added that Singh will hope to connect with Quebec voters in the way the late NDP leader Jack Layton did, with charisma and personality.

People attend a demonstration to protest against the Quebec governments Bill 21 in Montreal, Monday, June 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Supporters of a new coalition of Muslim groups attend a news conference denouncing Quebecs proposed Charter of Values Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

A man wears a yarmulke during a demonstration opposing the Quebec governments newly tabled Bill 21 in Montreal, Sunday, April 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes