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Quebec Voters Say Non to Anti-Religious Charter

Monday’s election delivered a resounding defeat to the Parti Québécois

Josh Tapper
April 08, 2014
Parti Liberal Québécois supporters celebrate their party victory at the plaza theatre in Montreal April 6, 2014. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Parti Liberal Québécois supporters celebrate their party victory at the plaza theatre in Montreal April 6, 2014. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

In an astoundingly quick and catastrophic fashion, the Parti Québécois was ousted from power Monday night in Quebec’s provincial elections. The Liberal Party of Quebec secured a four-year mandate after winning 70 of 125 provincial ridings, with several media outlets reporting a majority victory less than two hours after the polls closed at 8 p.m. The PQ won just 30 ridings and a meager 25 percent of the popular vote; it was the party’s worst showing since its first election 44 years ago. Pauline Marois, whose premiership expired ignobly after a mere 18 months, failed to win re-election in her own riding and resigned immediately as party leader.

The defeat brings closure to a rancorous six-week campaign in which the party of French Canadian sovereignty pinned its strategy for victory on divisive legislation, dubbed the “Charter of Values,” that would have banned government workers from wearing “overt” religious garb like kippot and hijabs—a clear sign to many of Quebec’s roughly 90,000 Jews that their security in the province was at risk.

When the election was called on March 5, it wasn’t farfetched to imagine Marois’s PQ claiming majority control of the provincial government as the Liberals foundered under fundraising and corruption scandals left over from previous leaderships. But the PQ unraveled in the campaign’s denouement as one of its star candidates, the billionaire media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, offered a ringing endorsement for Quebec secession, a testy issue Marois had been trying to excise from the party agenda. Compounding the damage was Jewish PQ candidate Evelyne Abitbol’s insistence Jewish doctors could be fired under the Charter for refusing to remove their kippot.

Now, with the PQ gone, the community is breathing a collective sigh of relief. “The party wanted to fire people wearing ostentatious religious signs,” Luciano Del Negro, the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ vice-president for Quebec, said Monday from Liberal Party headquarters at Montreal’s Théâtre Plaza. “I guess the people of Quebec wanted to fire them.”

Until Peladeau dredged up the sovereignty question weeks into the campaign, the Charter had been the key wedge issue on the PQ agenda, a scheme meant to solidify the party’s rural, largely French-speaking base in the regions outside Montreal. In the end, it was an unequivocal backfire as the platform—heavily criticized for its not-so-subtle xenophobia and fear-mongering over rising Muslim immigration—failed to attract a younger generation of Francophone voters. In his victory speech, Liberal leader Philippe Couillard called for inclusivity across the province. “The division is over,” he said. “The reconciliation has begun.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the PQ’s resounding defeat will spell a definite end to the rhetoric stirred up by the Charter. Throughout the campaign it garnered as much as 50 percent support in the polls, and around the province it opened a vitriolic, far-reaching debate about the boundaries of religious tolerance and accommodation for French Canadians chronically insecure about the long-term durability of Francophone cultural identity.

The toxicity in the air will no doubt linger. “I don’t think we’re putting the Charter behind us,” said Zev Moses, executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal. “It’s still this major thing that’s come up. A gorilla has been left in the room.”

Josh Tapper is a journalist based in Toronto. His Twitter feed is @joshtapper.

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