National Column: Singh can get hearing in Quebec

by Chantal Hebert

Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet was not really trying to stop the campaign of presumed NDP front-runner Jagmeet Singh in its tracks when she suggested this week that he was too religious for the good of Quebec.

For notwithstanding Ouellet’s assertion that Singh’s candidacy is testament to the “rise of the religious left,” Bloc strategists see his potential victory next month as the most desirable of all possible outcomes.

They have high hopes that a turban-wearing Sikh leader would drive Quebec voters in general, and some of the party’s current MPs in particular, away from the NDP.

The BQ is currently two seats short of the 12 members required to have official party status in the House of Commons. If Singh wins, party insiders suggest there are better than even odds that at least two Quebec NDP MPs will cross over. That would ensure the sovereigntist party recoups the automatic speaking rights it has lacked since Jack Layton almost wiped it off the map in 2011.

As a bonus, Pierre Nantel – the NDP MP who has been the most outspoken about his discomfort at the notion of serving under Singh – holds the federal riding where Ouellet would likely have the best shot at being elected in 2019. The federal riding of Longueuil-Saint-Hubert includes the BQ leader’s current provincial seat.

But the Bloc could be counting its chickens before they hatch. It would hardly be the first time.

It is possible that some New Democrat defectors will bolster the thin sovereigntist ranks in the Commons between now and 2019. But looking to the next general election, some of the assumptions behind the Singh narrative Ouellet and her party are pushing are at best untested and – potentially – dead wrong.

It was not so long ago that a fair number of Quebec watchers were ruling out of hand the possibility that a leader from out of the province would get the time of day from Quebecers. Conventional wisdom also had it that support for sovereignty would rise significantly under a non-Quebec prime minister.

Then Stephen Harper and Jack Layton came along.

Even more recently it was assumed that a party led by someone whose last name was Trudeau would be shut out of majority francophone ridings.

In 2015, the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, won a majority of Quebec seats. These days the prime minister’s Liberal party is more popular in his home province than any of its federal and provincial counterparts.

The widespread notion that Singh would not get a hearing in Quebec for the sole reason that he is a practicing Sikh is based on the same untested assumptions as those listed above.

What if, against all current expectations, the presence of a left-leaning Sikh NDP leader in the televised debates of the 2019 election turned out to be a positive game-changer? By that, I don’t necessarily mean a big NDP victory in Quebec. That may not be in the cards in two years under any of the leadership contenders.

But depending on the result of next fall’s Quebec election, the 2019 federal campaign may take place against the backdrop of the province’s open-ended secularism debate.

A Mainstreet poll published by Postmedia on Friday projected a picture of a Quebec so split between the four provincial parties that it may be hard for any of them to secure a majority government next year. Both the CAQ and the PQ are proponents of more restrictive measures to reinforce the secular character of the province’s public service.

If only for the purpose of political pedagogy, a more diverse federal leaders’ lineup could potentially do more to enrich the debate, or at least offer some Quebecers a chance to consider a different perspective on the balance between religious rights and a secular state, than any federal homily about charter rights.

Over the past decade, Quebec voters have turned every presumably safe notion about political mindset on its head. Prudence would suggest that one not prejudge their reaction to a Singh-led NDP.

There are valid reasons, ranging from policy preferences to concerns over Singh’s nonexistent federal experience or lack of a seat in the House of Commons, why the New Democrats could select one of his three rivals to lead the party, but the fear of a Quebec backlash should not be one of them.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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