National Column: NDP’s high wire act to maintain Quebec votes

by Chantal Hebert

Can the federal NDP maintain a hard-won presence in Quebec and at the same time become more competitive in the rest of Canada? Or is its repository of Quebec votes little more than a poisoned chalice?

The question has haunted the party since Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh threw his hat in the leadership ring earlier this year.

A Singh-led NDP might make inroads in the diverse suburban communities that hold the key to electoral

success nationally.

At the same time polls suggest a turban-wearing Sikh or any leader sporting religious headwear would face stiff voter resistance in Quebec.

But the issue really predates Singh’s appearance in the leadership picture. And it may well dominate the remaining weeks of the leadership campaign, starting with Sunday’s French-language debate in Montreal.

In the last election, Thomas Mulcair took a hit in Quebec for opposing a Conservative ban on the wearing of Muslim face-covering veils at citizenship ceremonies and lost votes outside that province to the perception that he had ceded the defence of niqab-wearing women to Justin Trudeau.

Now, the only Quebec candidate for his succession is arguing that it is possible for the NDP to simultaneously champion religious freedoms across Canada without opposing a Quebec bid to limit them.

“I do not believe that the state should dictate what people can wear. Many Quebecers agree with me, but in the end I am convinced that the final decision must remain with Quebec’s National Assembly,” Quebec MP Guy Caron argues in a policy paper released in the lead-up to the Montreal debate. “I am making it clear that, above all, an NDP leader must respect Quebec’s national character.”

Really! But then would the same reasoning apply if the National Assembly – in a bid to protect Quebec’s demographic weight in the federation – moved to restrict abortion rights to pursue a natalist policy?

And if Quebec’s collective take on the place of religion is a valid rationale to limit religious rights, are not countries whose governments identify closely with a given religion also within their rights to limit other freedoms in the name of the beliefs of the majority?

Finally, at what point, if any, does Caron think the right to exercise fundamental freedoms should constrain the National Assembly’s latitude to consolidate the province’s secular character?

Bill 62, the Liberal legislation currently debated in Quebec, would prevent individuals wearing face coverings, i.e. Muslim women who wear niqabs and burkas, from providing or procuring public services. Depending on the outcome of the next Quebec election, that may be just the beginning.

Quebec’s main opposition parties would impose a secular dress code on judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison guards. The Coalition Avenir Quebec would add teachers to the list.

The Charter put forward by Pauline Marois’ PQ government would have imposed a secular dress code on all public sector employees from child-care workers to hospital staff. Non-compliance could have resulted in loss of employment.

Quebec City mayor RÈgis Labeaume, among others, is arguing for a blanket ban on the wearing of burkas and niqabs in the public space.

In his paper, Caron argues that a two-tier NDP policy on religious rights is the way to go to show Quebecers that the party takes the province’s national character to heart.

In a statement released in her name by her campaign to the Huffington Post on Thursday, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton initially appeared to concur with Caron: ” … there is a consensus in Quebec’s political leaders emerging on secularism, and the Canadian government should respect the will of Quebecers on this matter. The place religion has held in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution has been perceived widely differently than in the rest of Canada, and this is something the federal government must respect.”

But then on Friday she tweeted: “I will not compromise on a woman’s right to wear what she chooses or on respecting our rights and freedoms.” Given that Quebec’s Bill 62 would require Muslim women to uncover their faces to procure public services, one can only wonder what Quebec consensus Ashton was referring to in her original statement.

Over the past few years, the PQ and the federal Conservatives have both flirted with measures that would have curbed some religious freedoms.

Each of those parties came away from the experience divided internally and with reduced growth prospects externally. There is no reason to believe the NDP would be spared the same malaise.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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