Amid the general gloom that has descended on Quebec’s Jewish community with the election of a majority Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government, Robert Libman, an activist for minority rights, is urging those dreading the next four years to look on the bright side.
“Despite voting as a bloc again for the Liberal party, Quebec’s English-speaking community should treat the election of the CAQ as an opportunity to finally build bridges with a party that we do not yet know very well,” said Libman, who co-founded the Equality Party in 1988 as a protest against the Liberal government’s language policies and led the now-defunct group to upset victories in four ridings, including his own, D’Arcy McGee, the following year.
“The community should willingly accept (premier-designate) François Legault’s outreach in his English remarks (in his victory speech), when he said that his government is our government, and in turn ensure that he empathizes with our concerns,” said Libman, who is now in private life.
“It can only be a benefit for English-speaking Quebecers to have two parties competing for our vote and no longer be political hostages, where our support is routinely taken for granted.”
Three days after the Oct. 1 election, the two main Jewish advocacy groups had made no specific comment, other than some pro forma congratulations from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Both its Quebec vice-president, Eta Yudin, and Harvey Levine, B’nai Brith’s Quebec region director, were reserving direct remarks until each organization had time to assess the situation.
They remained silent on Legault’s assertion that he would invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, if necessary, to implement the CAQ’s proposed secular values legislation. It would ban public-sector employees – as well as those representing “state authority,” such as police, judges, Crown prosecutors and even teachers – from wearing religious symbols, including kippot, at work.
This is the first CAQ government since the centre-right party was founded in 2011. While nationalist, it is not sovereignist. One of its key election promises was to reduce immigration to Quebec by 20 per cent annually.
The Jewish community, both at the official and grassroots levels, has had scant relations with the party, or its leader. Legault, a multimillionaire who co-founded and was CEO of Air Transat before entering politics in 1998, is a former Parti Québécois MNA and former minister of health and education.
In the past year, Legault’s support for retired broadcaster Gilles Proulx – who’s known for his xenophobic comments and at least one egregious anti-Semitic outburst in 2014 – has worried many in the Jewish community.
By contrast, a warm relationship had developed between the community and the strongly federalist Premier Philippe Couillard, who announced his resignation on Oct. 4. He was the first Quebec premier to lead a trade mission to Israel and spoke at two Yom ha-Shoah commemorations, among other Jewish events.
The sole Jewish MNA, Liberal David Birnbaum, was handily re-elected to a second term in the Montreal riding of D’Arcy McGee, which has the highest number of Jewish voters in Quebec, with 75 per cent of the vote. The turnout in the riding, which was considerably enlarged since the last election, was unusually low though – under 47 per cent.
Birnbaum said he is proud to carry on the responsibility of representing the concerns of the Jewish community of Quebec, as well as all residents of his riding, which now extends well into multicultural Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood.
This is the first time in 15 years, with the exception of the short-lived PQ minority government in 2012-14, that there has not been a Jewish member on the government benches.
“I’m very, very disappointed with the results. It’s a severe verdict, but we have to accept them and look closely at what we have to do to regain the confidence of Quebecers,” Birnbaum said.
He believes the Couillard government, in its single mandate, did “enormous good in making Quebec a more inclusive, more prosperous and more environmentally sound place to live, while renewing a forward-looking role in a united Canada.”
If the new government does not continue “that kind of Quebec, one where whoever chooses to live here, whatever their origin, is a full Quebecer, if it should go in a different direction, I will be an active part of the Opposition,” he said.
While the PQ has been demoted to fourth place with just nine seats and its leader, Jean-François Lisée, has resigned, the Jewish community is keeping watch on the ascendancy of the left-wing Québec Solidaire (QS), which won 10 seats in the election, up from three last time around, making it the third-largest party in the national assembly.
Founded in 2006, its first MNA, Amir Khadir, was elected in 2008 in the riding of Mercier. That Plateau-Mont-Royal riding, which was enlarged to encompass a significant number of Hasidim, is now represented by the QS’s Ruba Ghazal, who is of Palestinian origin.
The party formally endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel in 2009. And MNA Manon Massé – who’s ostensibly the party leader, though she shares much of the responsibility with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois – was aboard a boat that tried to breach the Gaza blockade in 2011.