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Controversial question in English debate may have galvanized Bloc voters

Question on bills 21 and 96 left many Quebecers feeling disrespected and misunderstood by English Canada

Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois party appears to be benefitting from voters' response to a tense exchange in the English language leaders' debate last week over Quebec's secularism law and its proposed new law to protect the French language.

Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois party appears to be benefitting from voters' response to a tense exchange in the English language leaders' debate last week over Quebec's secularism law and its proposed new law to protect the French language.

Photo: (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

RCI

At a bowling alley in Montreal's east end on a weekday afternoon, Réal Desrochers is playing in his weekly league and also considering his choices in next week's federal election.

Desrochers had been planning to vote Liberal, but a key moment in last Thursday's English-language leaders' debate galvanized identity sentiments in Quebec and spurred him to change his mind and choose the Bloc Québécois led by Yves-François Blanchet. 

For me, it's because the Bloc will balance the situation in Ottawa, Desrochers said. I know he won't form a government, but he will defend Quebec [in Parliament]. 

Desrochers called the moment a direct attack on Quebec, and I don't like it.

Last Thursday, at the beginning of the English leaders' debate, moderator Shachi Kurl asked Blanchet why he supported bills 21 and 96 — respectively, Quebec's secularism law and its proposed new law to protect the French language.

You denied that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones, asked Kurl.

Quebec is recognized as a distinct society, but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.

Blanchet shot back, saying, The question seems to imply the answer you want.

Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec, he said. 

Although Blanchet was visibly frustrated, it appears the majority of Canadians thought the moderator's question was a fair one.

According to a Léger poll published on Wednesday, 69 per cent of Canadians who live outside Quebec believe Kurl's question was appropriate, while only 12 per cent believe it wasn't.

WATCH | Quebec premier criticizes debate question on secularism law:

According to that same poll, 65 per cent of Quebecers believe the question was inappropriate.

The exchange had the effect of reviving an old wound, leaving Quebecers feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the rest of Canada, according to several experts interviewed by CBC.

It created a situation in which a debate that is typically almost ignored in Quebec may have changed the game for the federal election on the ground.

A bounce for the Bloc

The Bloc Québécois has risen from its slump in the polls back to a level of popularity similar to what it enjoyed during the 2019 election, in which it experienced a dramatic comeback, winning 32 seats after being reduced to 10 in the previous election.

According to another Léger poll published earlier this week, the party went from 27 per cent to 30 per cent of voter support in the province after the English debate.

It ignited Quebec's identity sentiments, said Guy Lachapelle, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal. 

Quebecers are sick of Quebec-bashing in general.… I think there is a misunderstanding of the major issues and debates in Quebec.

WATCH | Quebec columnists explain why the English debate angered some Quebecers:

Lachapelle doubts the increase in Bloc support will make a huge difference in which party ends up forming a government, though it minimizes the Liberals' and Conservatives' already slim chances of forming a majority and reduces the NDP's chances of making gains in the province to almost nil. 

For Christian Bourque, executive vice-president at Léger, though, that small bounce — accompanied by the Liberals surpassing the Conservatives in the polls this week despite an endorsement of Erin O'Toole by Premier François Legault (new window)  — could lead to surprises Monday night. 

We're all in these sort of dominoes because the race is so tight, Bourque said.

There are about 15 three-way races between the Bloc, Liberals and Conservatives, he said.

Since 2011, Quebec is, around Canada, probably the region where we have the most strategic voters, who will change alliance depending on how they feel the race is going, Bourque said.

Montrealer Lise Thériault says she decided to switch her vote from NDP to Bloc Québécois after the English-language leaders' debate.

Montrealer Lise Thériault says she decided to switch her vote from NDP to Bloc Québécois after the English-language leaders' debate.

Photo:  CBC

Lise Thériault says she has voted for the NDP since the so-called orange wave in 2011, but this time, she went to an advance poll to vote for the Bloc the day after the English debate. 

"Telling me, at 70 years old, that I'm a racist because I want to be proud of my French language? Non, ça marche pas ça. It doesn't work," Thériault said, switching easily between English and French.

I was insulted, and Monsieur Blanchet did a good job. I'm behind him 100 per cent.

Lachapelle says many Quebecers had a similar reaction. He, too, thinks English-speaking Canadians are misinformed about the nuances of Quebec issues.

We typically have a pretty good idea of what's happening in other provinces in Quebec, but the reverse is not always true, he said.

Thériault lives in the Montreal riding of Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, the NDP's last seat in the province, held by incumbent Alexandre Boulerice for the past 10 years. She said that this year, she was proud to vote for the Bloc's 21-year-old candidate, Shophika Vaithyanathasarma. 

In an interview with CBC this week, Vaithyanathasarma said her own feelings about Bill 21 are complicated. 

She supports the bill but is concerned that there is not enough diversity of candidates and politicians who are part of the conversation about it. 

That's one of the reasons I'm involving myself in politics: none of the people who are talking about the bill are racialized, Vaithyanathasarma said. I seriously think we have to listen to the citizens that are concerned.

Vaithyanathasarma, whose parents immigrated from Sri Lanka, says minorities should not be excluded from the discussion. 

That is one of the biggest mistakes we could make, she said, smiling.

Mireille Paquet, who holds the research chair on the politics of immigration at Concordia University, told As It Happens the question served Blanchet because it allowed for Blanchet to speak as if he was representing all of Quebecers, and as if Quebecers were all united around these pieces of legislation.

Premier Legault's controversial gambit

The conversation about the debate has overshadowed another significant development in the federal race in the province.

Hours before the English debate, Legault took a public stance against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, saying Quebecers should beware of three parties: the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Green Party.

Legault was irked by those parties' intentions to intervene in health-care matters, which are under provincial jurisdiction, and said, For the Quebec nation, Mr. O'Toole's approach is a good one. 

But Lachapelle, the Concordia professor, says Legault's endorsement could backfire. Many Quebecers have grumbled about being told who to vote for. The Conservatives have lost some ground in Quebec since the endorsement and are now polling at 18.4 per cent, according to 338Canada (new window) founder Philippe Fournier. 

The voters of Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec party are generally split between voting Bloc, Liberal and Conservative at the federal level. Legault's gamble may have alienated a good portion of them, Lachappelle said. 

Legault risks losing a certain amount of his base, especially if the Conservatives win and don't deliver [on their promises to Quebec].

Still, as the dust settles following the debate and its controversy, the polls (new window) suggest that Quebecers may end up voting along the same lines as they did in 2019.

I'm under the impression we're going to have a similar result as the last election, he said.

Léger conducted a web survey of 1,000 Canadians who are 18 and older. It is not possible to calculate a margin of error on a panel sample. However, as a comparison, the maximum margin of error for a 1,000-respondent sample is plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The margin of error for information that specifically pertains to Quebec is higher, given the smaller sample size.

Verity Stevenson (new window) · CBC News 

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