MONTREAL — With opinion polls showing the provincial Liberals steadily gaining in popularity and within reach of forming a government on April 7, the mood in the Montreal Jewish community has brightened considerably.
When the Quebec election was called on March 5, few federalists dared hope for more than keeping the Parti Québécois (PQ) to the minority government status it has had since September 2012.
Depressing, dire and desperate are adjectives that readily come to mind to describe the first couple of weeks of the campaign.
Yet even if the Liberals under the steady, calm leadership of former neurosurgeon Philippe Couillard capture enough of the 125 National Assembly seats to assume power, Jewish Quebecers’ sense of their place in Quebec society has been shaken.
Ever since the charter of Quebec values was floated by the PQ during the 2012 election campaign, Jews and other religious minorities have increasingly felt unwelcome, the objects of suspicion and contempt in the province.
Solace might have been found in denial and the hope that the charter – enshrined in Bill 60, which was tabled in November – would never pass. Others comforted themselves with the rationalization that the charter appealed only to unsophisticated Quebecers living in the hinterland, which is patently not the case.
Ministers Bernard Drainville and Jean-François Lisée, the bill’s most eloquent proponents, are highly intelligent, worldly men. The doctrine of state religious neutrality and secularism in the public sphere is sacred among the intelligentsia. Only the means to ensuring it differ.
On March 30, Premier Pauline Marois voiced what many already believed: that the aim of the charter is to prevent Islamic fundamentalism from taking hold in Quebec.
The fear of some kind of Muslim takeover of Quebec may have given impetus to the charter, but the PQ is also well aware from the rancorous debate over “reasonable accommodation” that dominated the news from about 2006 to 2008 that there’s a strong streak of resentment against the overtly religious in general, especially those who are non-Christian and who seek to exercise their rights.
The charter can also be placed in the context of a secular evolution in Quebec, which began in the early 1960s with the Quiet Revolution, when the province shed the repressive influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
If we have broken the shackles of clerical control, why are we now faced with having to accede to the demands of those who have not likewise liberated themselves? The charter is a very big basket gathering together both the most progressive and the most bigoted.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Jewish community’s main representative body, has denounced the charter in the strongest terms, saying it will have a “devastating” impact on the community and that it’s a worrisome break with Quebec’s tradition of tolerance, which was upheld by past sovereigntist leaders, starting with the nationalist movement’s founding father, the late PQ premier René Lévesque.
Yet, it should not be overlooked that the charter has a small number of (mostly silent) supporters among Jews. They include those who are afraid of the Islamic influence or who are ardent secularists or feminists.
Evelyne Abitbol, who is Jewish, is running for the PQ in l’Acadie, a Montreal riding with a large immigrant population that is staunchly Liberal. She was introduced by Marois, along with three other women of North African origin as members of the Jewish and Muslim communities who unreservedly support the charter. The four are secular and strong defenders of women’s rights.
It also should not be forgotten that the third-party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) has at least three Jewish candidates, one a young anglophone.
That party, which ran for the first time in 2012 and won 18 seats, proposes a modified charter. Instead of banning religious wear among all public and para-public employees, the CAQ, led by François Legault, a former PQ education and health minister, would limit that to police officers, correctional officers, judges and prosecutors – as the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation recommended – adding teachers and administrators in public schools to the list.
If the fear of charter being adopted, as well as the French-language laws being toughened and the ground being prepared for a third sovereignty referendum, were not enough to send a chill through the Jewish community, the Louise Mailloux affair plunged it into the deep freeze.
Mailloux, the PQ candidate in the Montreal riding of Gouin, is a college philosophy professor, writer, and militant secularist. CIJA collected numerous verbal and written statements by her over a number of years that were serious enough for the organization to level the rarely used charge of anti-Semitism.
In fact, it has put her in the same company as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists.
CIJA cites repeated instances where Mailloux has characterized kashrut certification as a money grab to enrich rabbis at the expense of the Quebec consumer. She’s even gone so far as to charge that the proceeds go to finance religious wars.
More disturbing is that Marois has stood staunchly behind Mailloux and, in fact, praised her for putting her intellectual powers behind the cause of the charter.
Mailloux’s defenders among certain “progressive” circles have painted her as a victim of a campaign waged by Jewish groups and the anglophone media. It’s true the French media gave scant attention to the story. The fact is her views are not that far outside the mainstream.
This week, the New York-based Anti-Defamation League voiced its concern that political leaders in Quebec have failed to condemn Mailloux’s “anti-Semitic” statements.
Last month, Mailloux did issue a weak apology – “if [she] had offended anyone” – which CIJA rejected. Her election is improbable, but not impossible. The incumbent is Françoise David, one of two current MNAs for the pro-sovereignist, left-wing Québec solidaire.
If Couillard, who became Liberal leader last year, becomes the next premier, the Jewish community will be entering a new era in its relationship with the party. The bond between the community and Couillard’s predecessor, Jean Charest, was warm, and he had many personal friends in the community.
Couillard is a strong federalist and proud Canadian and has not been afraid to say so. He has had no obvious ties with the Jewish community, but he has appeared very open and willing to dialogue.
Last year, at Shavuot, he denounced Drainville’s objection to relaxed parking regulations, which had been a longstanding practice in some Montreal boroughs as “inappropriate” and “divisive.”
The Liberals’ campaign slogan is Ensemble (Together) and its candidates have cast the PQ as the party of division.
Couillard’s position on the charter, however, has been inconsistent. He famously said early on in the debate that the charter would only pass “over my dead body. As well, he would not keep his only Muslim member, Fatima Houda-Pépin, in the caucus because she is in favour of the charter as bulwark against fundamentalism.
Yet, when the Liberals finally unveiled their official position in January on the charter, it included the proviso that police officers and prison guards should only be allowed to wear religious symbols if they get permission from a “competent authority.”
Couillard 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 Liberals favour preserving certain symbols of the “religious patrimony” of Quebec, including the crucifix over the speaker’s chair in Quebec’s National Assembly.
According to its January position paper, the Liberals want the primacy of state religious neutrality included in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (as Bill 60 proposes), and they believe that any accommodation made for a person’s religious beliefs be in keeping with that tenet, as well as respect gender equality.
Whatever party wins on April 7, there will, barring a miracle, be a new Jewish MNA. The day after the election was called, Lawrence Bergman, the Liberal who represented D’Arcy McGee since 1994, announced he was stepping down. It came as a surprise, and it was widely assumed he was given a nudge by Couillard. Bergman, 73, is a former revenue minister.
David Birnbaum is the Liberal standard-bearer in the riding, the only one with a Jewish majority. He has had a long career in journalism and community and educational organizations, most recently serving as executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, and between 1998 and 2004, of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region.
At 58, he has entered politics to “end the destructive politics of division, uncertainty and fear that have marked Pauline Marois’ damaging regime,” he said at his campaign launch.
“Make no mistake: this election is an absolutely crucial moment in our history, a chance to cast aside the PQ plan for yet another referendum threatening the future of our country. It is a chance to instead focus on real issues of jobs, education, health care and economic growth in a renewed and stable Quebec within Canada.”
And although the polls are encouraging, any optimism in the community is tempered by the realization of their unreliability, especially in Quebec where the electorate is capricious.
Before the 2012 election, the Liberals appeared headed for not only defeat, but a third-place finish. But they came within five seats of the PQ, and were almost tied in the popular vote.
Whatever their political persuasion, the community’s leadership says it’s imperative that everyone who is eligible to vote should cast a ballot, and that includes those who are out of town, such as the many snowbirds still in Florida.
“Even in ridings where the winning candidate may appear to be a foregone conclusion, every single ballot will make a real difference,” said Federation CJA president Susan Laxer, because party funding is now tied to the number of votes received and the level of popular support is important, if not decisive.