To Charte, or not to Charte?

Somewhere, in the smouldering rubble of what was once Philippe Couillard’s credibility, there are signs of life.

The rest-of-Canada is staring at Quebec with cocked head, as it tries to discern exactly what is going on with the debate over the Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality.  The Secularist Charter.  Let’s just call it the Secularist Charter.

Living in the wreckage of Couillard’s proverbial plane are Canada’s three federal parties, each saddled with the responsibility of admonishing the Charter with as guttural a cry as they can muster.  Couillard’s husk, pulled apart by trying to stand astride several rapidly-diverging positions, no longer offers them a unified front which they can stand behind.

But here’s the catch: New Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives alike in Quebec support the Charter.

Now, the uneducated in the ROC might not understand this, but the Charter has about as many detractors and supporters as any other topic in Quebec — in fact, the balance might be more on the supportive side.

Explaining why it is that the Charter garners earnest thumbs-up from the Quebec crowd is not an easily explainable phenomenon.  Nevertheless, I took a crack at it here.  But suffice it to say: for the pure laine, there is nothing intrinsically racist or xenophobic about the pan on conspicuous religious symbols in provincial workplaces.  See, for them, allowing the pious to display those symbols is not a sort of default or zero sum: it’s an accommodation.  Barring, therefore, isn’t a removal of a right, but instead the redefining of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation.

Anyway, justifications aside, the federal parties do not support it.  Not one bit.

“I think the common sense of Quebecers will force this towards a reasonable conclusion as the debate progresses,” Stephen Harper said of the Charter.  (If that doesn’t sound quite firm enough, look to Multiculturalism czar Jason Kenney, who strongly indicated that he would sic the lawyers on Marois if it were implemented.)

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was particularly eloquent in his review, telling reporters with staccato inflection: “We’re categorical in rejecting this approach.  Human rights don’t have a best-before date, they’re not temporary and they’re not a popularity contest.”

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, was proactive by panning the Charter in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail.  “The PQ government’s plan is divisive, negative and emotional.  It is designed to be that way.  Quebeckers will reject it.”

But here’s the thing: they haven’t.  And they might not.

Did the three federal parties get duped by Pauline Marois and her compatriots in the Bloc?

First, some figures.

Forum Research polled Quebecers in August on their support for the Charter.  It found 42% in support, 47% against, with 11% unsure.  (This week, Leger put those numbers at 48% and 41%, respectively.)

But Forum, usefully, asks respondents their federal party preference.

They found that support was highest, unsurprisingly, amongst Bloc voters, at 72%; then the Conservatives, at 43%; then the NDP, with 28%; and finally the Liberals, at 25%.

It would seem, then, that the parties’ harsh tones seem destined to push wavering secularizing Quebecers back into the arms of the staunchly pro-Charter PQ.  It, too, could suggest that those Bloquists who may consider themselves in Maria Mourani’s camp, will wander from their pen, onto the open plains.

Without a Ouija Board connected to René Lévesque, discerning exactly how Quebecers will flip on this issue, if they flip at all, is difficult.

Here are some truisms: a rising Bloc is bad for the NDP.  A rising NDP is bad for the Bloc and Liberals.  A rising Liberal Party is bad for the NDP and Conservatives.  A rising Conservative Party is bad for the Liberals.  And, finally, depending on the area and the circumstance, there may be some cross-pollination between the NDP and Conservatives.

Got it?  Good.

What is telling is the electoral gameplans that the parties are presenting.

Let’s start with the Conservatives.  Daniel LeBlanc reported in the Globe yesterday that the Tories are planning a blitz of 15 ridings in Quebec in advance of the 2015 election.  Add in the five they currently hold, and two on the island of Montreal that they’ve always fought for, and that makes for an ambitious 22-seat goal.

That’s a pipe dream.  They’ll be lucky to hold their existing five.  Yet the Charter might just play spoiler.

Of the 15 — their “arrow” through the southeast — three illustrate the Tories’ struggle against the New Democrats: Montmagny—L’Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, and Jonquière—Alma and Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier.

On the surface, they have nothing in common except a strong Conservative vote.  Two are rural, and one is in Quebec City.

In practice, they have an ideal confluence of circumstance — weak New Democrats and strong sovereigntist presence.  In Jonquière—Alma, they have the ideal situation of fighting the floor-crossing incumbent Claude Patry, who has taken up the Bloc’s colours.  In Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, they no longer have to contend with iconoclastic radio host-cum-independent and part-time bus driver, Andre Arthur.

If the New Democrats end up alienating their rural, francophone, nationalist voters — those most likely to support the Charter — that means a resurgent Bloc.  Yet the sovereigntist party, still hobbled by its own general incompetence, shouldn’t be expected to actually put in the resources to win any of these ridings.  That means the Tories may well come up the middle.  There’s no telling how many ridings this could affect.

Rural Tory voters might be more libel to support the Charter but, if history in the province is any indication, they’ll be the least likely to abandon the party over it.  Conservatives in Quebec tend to be nationalist, francophone, and rapidly federalist.  So even if they support the Charter, they’re not about to jump to the softies in the NDP.

Those driving the Tories’ fiercer-than-it-needs-to-be opposition to the Charter are the cultural communities on the island of Montreal that have stuck with the Tories, and have been getting woo-ed by the schmoozy prowess of Jason Kenney.

Their influence may open up two long-coveted ridings for the Conservatives — Irwin Cotler’s Mount Royal, and Francis Scarpaleggia’s Lac-St-Louis.  Both ridings are amongst the most federalist ridings in the province (hell, maybe even the country.)  Cotler’s riding is heavily Jewish, while Scarpaleggia’s has a sizeable and growing allophone population.

If Kenney can woo like he’s never woo-ed before, he might just collect the Tories two seats that they will so sorely need the next time out.

There’s no doubt that the Tories will tilt at the Charter as hard as they can, as not to not do so would offend the most basic sensibilities of their considerable minority base.  Preserving the 905 is infinitely more important than playing ball in the political thicket that is Quebec.

Now here’s the great temptation for the NDP: oh to wonder merrily into the middle of it all, and risk stepping on a landmine.

In advance of the Charter’s tabling, the Dippers were conspicuously quiet.  Their opposition to the Charter was thunderous.  But, like Couillard’s Liberals, are they pondering planting their flag somewhere in the great inbetween?

Alexandre Boulerice, for example, NDP star candidate and general spokesperson, refused to comment on where his stood vis-a-vis the full-body-covering Chador.  Mulcair was similarly cagey the other other day in a scrum.  Even sticking their toe into the water as far as signalling their discomfort with such attire could endear some support from the broad centre of francophone Quebec.

The Liberals, meanwhile, need to figure out a communications strategy for their plan of attack.  Competing with the Conservatives for being the most vocally opposed to the Charter might prove to be a pissing contest.  Following their semi-affiliated provincial namesake, meanwhile, would be suicidal and, according to one Liberal source, is not an option.  The party will maintain its categorical opposition to the Charter — and its MPs are expected to do the same.  Someone might want to pass that memo to electoral neophyte Emmanuel Dubourg, who refused to pronounce himself one way or the other when I asked him during the by-election in his riding: he would only commit to engaging with Canadians.

The whole thing is about as thorny a situation as you can imagine.

One thing is for sure:

Quebec is hard.


Other columns by Justin Ling

Harper’s Israeli Rorschach Test

Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street

It’s time for the Toronto Star to get back to journalism

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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