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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Federal leaders tread lightly in Quebec

Posted: 03/10/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and her ruling Parti Québécois should coast to victory in the election she called for April 7. In the 18 months since she won power at the head of a minority government, she has kept out of political trouble, while making vague nationalist gestures for the benefit of the Quebec separatists who make up one segment of her party. She has done nothing to provoke a wave of public anger that might sweep her from office. Scenting growing public support, she is trying for a legislature majority that would consolidate her power.

The federal parties will be paying close attention to the shifting political winds in Quebec. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is leader of the opposition in the present Parliament because former leader Jack Layton elected 59 candidates from Quebec's 75 seats in 2011, nearly annihilating the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives while reducing the Liberals to seven seats. Those new NDP voters may be up for grabs once again, and all the parties have to figure out how to grab them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have never aroused much enthusiasm in Quebec. The sponsorship scandal that unfolded in the time of prime minister Jean Chrétien disgusted Quebecers and dissolved the loyalty many French-speaking voters felt for the Liberal party. The Bloc Québécois, which existed to pave the way for Quebec independence, became more and more pointless as that dream faded.

In these circumstances, the late Mr. Layton seemed in 2011 like an inoffensive choice. But the Quebec voters who suddenly turned to the NDP in 2011 have no long connection to the party and little reason to remain loyal to it. They may be available to a party that finds the secret of capturing their attention.

Premier Marois found a surprisingly good public response by promising to stop Quebec public officials from wearing ostentatious religious symbols at work. People in cosmopolitan Montreal are used to seeing their neighbours wearing Middle Eastern, African or East European fashions, but in other parts of Quebec many people are troubled by seeing unfamiliar styles of clothing -- especially head scarves and veils, which went out of fashion in Quebec when nuns modernized their habits. While other parties sought support by talking about health care, the Constitution and the economy, Premier Marois won support by legislating on civil servants' fashion statements. Her draft Charter of Quebec Values is the subject of continuing public hearings.

When public opinion is so volatile and old political loyalties have so thoroughly dissolved, the federal parties will have a hard time guessing how they should appeal to Quebec voters.

Prime Minister Harper, whose party holds just five Quebec seats, may find his best advantage in keeping majestically above the Quebec political fray. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has cast himself as the embodiment of a certain liberal tradition in Quebec. He also offers himself as a new face from a rising generation able to propose novel approaches to the sterile old partisan battles. He may find it hard to resist offering some advice to Quebecers.

Mr. Mulcair and the NDP have the most to lose. Without the 57 Quebec members of its caucus, the NDP would quickly return to its customary position as a small left opposition group in Parliament. He must look like a loyal Quebecer within Quebec -- but not so much so as to offend New Democrat voters in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and the West. Many of the people who voted NDP in 2011 will also vote for the Parti Québécois on April 7.

Mr. Mulcair has wisely said he is not going to campaign in the Quebec election. But if he even seems to be cosying up to the soft-nationalist swing voters who make the difference in Quebec elections, he will invite harsh criticism from upholders of Canadian unity in other provinces.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2014 A8

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