MONTREAL — Grassroots community activists in Montreal offered a gloomy perspective as the Quebec election campaign got underway last week, with the spectre of the proposed secularism charter hanging over the April 7 vote.
Businessman Gary Shapiro, founder and chair of CRITIQ (Canadian Rights in Quebec), described the mood among those who don’t support the minority Parti Québécois government as “angry and, more importantly, scared” because of Bill 60, which was introduced fall.
“They feel they are being driven away. For most people there biggest asset is their home, and they are wondering how they will sell it and where they will live.
“The affluent will lose money, that’s all, but for the less affluent, they are worried about making a livelihood. They live in fear,” he said.
A sense of helplessness prevails, Shapiro believes. “The answer is not the Liberals or the [nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec]. Anglophones and allophones were no better off under the Liberals. Both parties will bash minorities to appease the soft nationalists.”
Nevertheless, Shapiro said he is happy the vote was called sooner rather than later.
“Uncertainty is the biggest killer,” he said. “At least we will know who and what we are dealing with.”
Shapiro doesn’t think a PQ majority is a certainty. “I’m hoping [Premier Pauline] Marois has peaked too early and is counting too much on the charter. I’m hoping Quebecers will realize the economy is the real issue and that if they have no jobs, they have no life.”
If the PQ does get a majority, Shapiro predicts the “quiet exodus” out of the province will accelerate and the economy will grind to a halt.
Jewish groups have consistently criticized the proposed charter, which would prohibit public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, such as kippot and hijabs, while on the job.
In an interview about the election, CIJA Quebec vice-president Luciano Del Negro acknowledged the “apprehension” in the community in the wake of the charter debate and with polls indicating the PQ could form a majority government.
“But it’s an open race at this point,” he said.
CIJA is keeping in contact with all parties to apprise them of the community’s concerns, but he said it is equally important for all community members to “make their voices heard” and be involved with the party of their choice, including fundraising.
Norman Simon, founder of the anti-charter group Canadians for Coexistence, said there’s a sense of foreboding as the campaign begins. “Everybody is very anxious,” he said. “I’d call it a desperate atmosphere.”
A PQ majority would be “absolutely devastating,” he believes. “They will do whatever they want to harass the minorities and discourage us from staying here.”
Like Shapiro, the retired teacher hopes this can be averted if Quebecers are persuaded the critical issue is the economy and not the charter.
Simon has no doubt that Marois, as head of a majority government, would trigger a sovereignty referendum.
“She doesn’t care about the economy. In fact, she wants it to fail, because it would be another reason for anglophones and minorities to leave the province.
“I know people who are real estate agents and they say business is already bad. And it’s not only [the value of homes]. Small and medium business are horribly affected as well.”
On the day the election was called, Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal (CJDM) released two short French-language videos on YouTube aimed at “celebrating Quebec culture, while promoting tolerance, respect and freedom of conscience.”
The more-than-40-year-old interfaith group is opposed to the charter.
The first “Cher Québec” video reminds Quebecers of their capacity for welcoming immigrants and championing human rights, and urges them to reject the charter. “We are strong and confident enough to engage in public dialogue with those who are from different cultural and religious backgrounds,” a narrator says.
In the second, a father speaks of “what he discovered through the eyes of my daughter,” when the now-22-year-old woman attended a preschool with children of diverse origins.
Also last week, the province’s sole Jewish member of the National Assembly, Lawrence Bergman, announced he won’t be seeking a seventh term as the Liberal member for D’Arcy McGee.
At a March 7 press conference held at his constituency office in Côte St. Luc two days after the election was called, Bergman, 73, said he was leaving politics after 20 years because he wanted to spend more time with his family. He avoided a question on whether his surprising resignation was asked for by Philippe Couillard, who became party leader last year.
Bergman was acclaimed as the Liberal candidate in October.
“The only pressure on me was to return to my family,” he said, denying his health was a factor.
Reports the Liberal candidate in D’Arcy McGee would be David Birnbaum, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association and, from 1998 to 2004, of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region, had not been confirmed last week.
The riding is one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. Bergman usually garnered at least 90 per cent of the vote.
Bergman said he has full confidence in Couillard’s leadership and believes the Liberals will form a majority government April 7. He criticized the PQ for “dividing the population,” and said he believes a Couillard government “will bring people back together again” to focus on the economy, health care and education.