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Opinion: How can Quebec voters choose between racism and corruption?

Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard shakes hands with Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois on February 11, 2014. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – As Shakespeare once said, “What’s past is prologue,” and so far, the Quebec election certainly seems to be bearing this out.

The minority-baiting of the charter of values, the normalized Islamophobia among the ranks of Parti Quebecois candidates and the perverse piece of theatre masquerading as an election campaign has left many voters wondering, not only about the integrity of the candidates, but about the integrity of the democratic process.

“This coming week will be crucial for democracy,” PQ Justice Minister Bernard St-Arnaud, the man responsible for enforcing the rule of law in this fine province, said on Sunday.

“Will the Quebec election be stolen by the people from Ontario, by the rest of Canada?”

READ MOREPQ vow not to let Ontario students decide election outcome

Pinned neatly against the ropes by a flurry of self-inflicted wounds, the PQ went grasping about in the same well of intolerance which had served up the charter, its roadmap to the promised land of majority territory.

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By Monday, the gambit had backfired spectacularly on the premier and a coterie of rapidly backpedalling government ministers.

A simple fact-check revealed that allegations of a significant increase in minorities registering to vote were false, with registrations significantly lower in some of the named ridings than at the same point in the 2012 campaign. Worse, the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ) placed the blame squarely on the PQ for providing the independent body with false information.

READ MORENo irregular activity or vote stealing says Quebec’s Chief Electoral Officer

“What we don’t like is the way these allegations have been used by a political party to say that some election could be stolen in Quebec and there could be fraud, which is false and no elector should believe it,” said Denis Dion, spokesperson for the DGEQ.

But it should surprise no one that in desperation, the PQ reaction was to once more divide the population against minorities. Like heroin and Pringles, the act of minority-baiting can be habit forming.

In the U.S., the Republican Party long since came to the conclusion that if minorities weren’t going to vote for them, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all.

The package of reforms that pursues this agenda, often under the guise of fighting electoral fraud, can be collectively described as “voter-suppression measures.” It seems to be making its first appearance in Canada in the Quebec election campaign, although the Harper government’s “Fair Elections Act” could be considered a fellow traveller on the voter suppression super-highway.

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READ MORE: 5 things to know about Conservative election reforms

Once minorities are clearly marked as enemies, a party starts to attract supporters who also dislike minorities, the presence of whom reinforces the bias until shrewd strategy becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Some candidates have racist views,” Samar Assoum told me. She is the Muslim student who famously challenged the premier to an impromptu debate on the charter in a shopping mall, where she maintained her right, as an unveiled Muslim woman, to decide for herself what she puts on her head.

Watch: Samar Assoum debates Quebec premier

“You’re either one thing or the other. Secularist or radical Islamist. One identity,” she said.

“You can be a Quebecer and for the charter, or an extremist, but you can’t be in between. When our government divides us like this it’s hard to advance a vision which will help all of society.”

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I asked Assoum if she thought the PQ were racist towards Muslims, as a series of PQ candidates (including Jean Carrière and Louise Mailloux) have made disparaging comments about adherents to the faith.

“Some people were already racist, but the charter has reinforced intolerance. People who used to hide their feelings are emboldened, they feel it’s okay to be racist because the government, the PQ and the charter, they have given these prejudices legitimacy.

“I don’t believe that the PQ’s agenda is racist, I think their agenda is to get votes, and they think the best way to get votes is to make people afraid of immigrants.”

READ MORECases of ‘hijabaphobia’ increasing in Quebec

Coincidentally, Assoum was born and raised in Montreal. But in these polarized times, the colour of her skin and her faith, have led many to perceive her as an “immigrant,” birthplace notwithstanding.

It’s not only Assoum who suggests that it is political utility, not prejudice, which drives Marois and her ministers to demonize the “other.” Political analyst Chantal Hébert, wrote on Monday that today’s PQ must have René Lévesque spinning in his grave:

“What is certain is that the pack of attack dogs intent on fear-mongering that the PQ is turning into in this campaign bears little resemblance to the straight-shooting party that René Lévesque founded in the flower-child era of the late 1960s.”

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READ MOREParti Quebecois: The public loves our values charter

In the intervening 50 years, the political vision of Lévesque has been largely discarded by the party that still venerates his memory. If anything, the legacy of Lévesque has found its home in Quebec Solidaire, an upstart leftist challenge to the PQ, founded on principles that closely resemble the social democratic vision the party used to hold dear.

But the subject of independence in Quebec is not as straightforward as it might seem.

I have a friend, a sovereigntist, who, upon hearing the words “Parti” and “Québécois” uttered in the same sentence, falls into a mocking, trance-like repetition of the words “un pays, un pays.”

He doesn’t think that the PQ are delivering on sovereignty.

“I want a country in order to do something,” he told me. “I want a country that will be radically different than the one we live in now. They want a country because they think it’ll be pretty.”

But while it may be easy to find fault with the PQ, the alternative is not a great deal rosier.

READ MOREQuebec Liberal leader: values charter will become law ‘over my dead body’

Quebecers threw out a tired and morally-bankrupt Liberal government scarcely 18 months ago. If they were corrupt then, as over 80 per cent of us told pollsters recently, are we really to believe a year and a half in exile has led them to a proverbial conversion on the road to Damascus?

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It comes as little surprise then, that the PQ have filed a complaint against the Liberals for illegal fundraising, based on documents turned up by UPAC, the permanent anti-corruption police squad.

READ MORE: Liberal government means a return to corruption

The triumph of this campaign for the Liberals has been to remain relatively invisible, as the PQ shoots itself in one foot after another. In so far as either front-runner has discussed policy (which is to say barely at all), the Liberals big bold pledge is to create new, for-profit and private “super-clinics” to ease waiting times.

Watch: Party’s healthcare platform analysis

Leaving aside the insanity of discarding CLSCs (Quebec’s free, provincially maintained network of health clinics), rather than re-working them to meet demand, one has to wonder at the motivations of this promise. Could it be geared more to the interests of Liberal leader Philippe Couillard’s former, and likely future, colleagues in private health care, rather than to the needs of the population?

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Meanwhile the PQ personify the old adage: “Here are our principles. Don’t like them? Don’t worry, we’ve got others.”

READ MOREQuebec charter could be key to PQ election campaign

The party’s selling points include being simultaneously for and against a referendum, and being less corrupt than their Liberal predecessors. A competition in which they possess a distinct advantage, by virtue of having been in power only two of the past twelve years.

The PQ’s open flirtation with racism, disregard for the impact of its actions on vulnerable minorities and its new low of attempting to suppress the vote amongst students makes it richly deserving of the boot. That is, if its record of broken promises and betrayal on files from Anticosti to tuition fees was not already reason enough.

But in order to oust the PQ, voters must re-elect the Liberals.

I believe the bulk of us don’t want either the PQ or the Liberals in power. But we’re stuck with one or the other. And that is why I believe our democracy is broken.

READ MOREMarois says there’s no insecurity for anglophones in Quebec

After a panel discussion last week, I was approached by someone who happened to be Muslim, who shared his view on the election outcome.

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“I wouldn’t call it an exodus exactly,” he said.

“But if the PQ win a majority, a lot of people in my community are talking quite seriously about leaving.”

With a PQ majority government, Quebecers can expect more minority-baiting and more measures to divide us into “real Quebecers,” and “others”; while the Liberal Party is promising a possible return to corruption and sleaze in the province, with a full frontal assault on the Canada Health Act as a cherry on the political sundae.

I leave the last word to the great Bard of Avon, “A plague on both your houses!”

Are you hard-pressed to decide who to vote for on April 7? Let us know in the comments. 

Ethan Cox is a Montreal-based political commentator and senior partner with CauseComms: Communications for the Common Good. He writes about Quebec and national political issues for Global News, The National Post, Toronto Star and other news outlets, and is also a regular analyst and host on radio with CJAD 800 and on television with CTV.

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