Leaders defend Quebecers as questions about discrimination erupt after debate

Click to play video: 'Quebec premier, others call out Quebec-bashing following federal debate'
Quebec premier, others call out Quebec-bashing following federal debate
WATCH: There is major fallout from Thursday night's English language debate in Quebec. Debate organizers and moderator Shachi Kurl are being accused of Quebec-bashing and racism. Global’s Raquel Fletcher reports. – Sep 10, 2021

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note the tweet was sent by the provincial Parti Québécois, which also advocates for the independence of Quebec.

Federal party leaders were defending Quebec against charges of racism on Friday — a day too late, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet shot back — as they returned to the road hoping to capitalize on any post-debate momentum as Canadians start voting in advance polls.

No stranger to recent federal election campaigns, the controversial issue of secularism in Quebec once again burst onto the scene at Thursday’s English-language debate, when Blanchet objected strongly to the phrasing of a question by moderator Shachi Kurl.

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“All the contempt and incomprehension from the CBC host towards Quebec’s Bill 21 and Bill 96,” wrote the Parti Québécois, a provincial party in the province which also advocates for the independence of Quebec.

“Good thing the Bloc Québécois stands up for Quebec.”

Kurl asked about Blanchet’s support for “discriminatory” laws in Quebec such as one known as Bill 21, which bars some civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols or garb. Blanchet in turn accused her of painting all Quebecers as racist.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says Leaders’ debate question on racism in Quebec was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘offensive’'
Trudeau says Leaders’ debate question on racism in Quebec was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘offensive’

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative rival Erin O’Toole in separate campaign events on Friday asserted Quebecers are not racist, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it was unhelpful for the fight against systemic racism to single out any one province or territory.

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Click to play video: 'Canada election: O’Toole calls debate question on racism in Quebec ‘a little unfair’'
Canada election: O’Toole calls debate question on racism in Quebec ‘a little unfair’

Quebec, with 78 seats, is a key battleground that could determine the outcome of the election. At dissolution, the Liberals held 35 seats in the provinces, the Bloc 32, the Conservatives 10 and the NDP just one.

Quebec Premier François Legault for his part described the question about Bill 21 and Bill 96, which proposes to strengthen the role of French in Quebec, as “unacceptable” and an attack on the province. He called for Kurl and debate organizers to apologize.

Click to play video: 'Key takeaways from the final leaders’ debate'
Key takeaways from the final leaders’ debate

Quebec’s Liberal party leader Dominique Anglade also denounced what she called “Quebec bashing,” tweeting a statement saying the Quebec described by moderators is “not our Quebec.”

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“We are an open, free, strong and proud population that has frank discussions on delicate subjects and there isn’t always a consensus,” Anglade, who has herself expressed a lack of support for Bill 21 in the past, wrote. “These disagreements don’t authorize anyone to talk about Quebec that way. That discourse has no place,” she said, referring to the phrasing of Kurl’s question which inferred Quebec was a discriminatory province.

READ MORE: Quebec premier lambastes Trudeau, says O’Toole would be easier to work with

Both Bills 21 and 96 have been panned by civil liberties and human rights groups as discriminatory. Bill 21, which has widespread support in the province, has been challenged in court, though the province has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause to protect it from a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Blanchet defended both laws during the debate as legitimate and reflective of Quebec’s values.

Click to play video: 'The controversial Quebec question at the federal leaders’ English debate'
The controversial Quebec question at the federal leaders’ English debate

He also objected to how the issue of systemic discrimination had become “a political tool” to use against Quebec. “It became a tool to say Quebec is this and that and racist and xenophobic and all of that,” Blanchet said in the debate.

The only leader to challenge Blanchet during the debate was Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who invited the Bloc Québécois leader “to get educated about systemic discrimination.”

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Trudeau has previously spoken out against Bill 21, including during the 2019 federal election, as well as a ban on face coverings adopted by the Quebec government. That issue also figured prominently in the 2015 election when the former Conservative government mulled a niqab ban for public servants. He reiterated his opposition to the secularism law on Friday.

Yet the Liberal leader also said he was “taken aback” by the premise of Kurl’s question, saying during a campaign event in Hamilton, Ont.: “It is wrong to suggest that Quebecers are racist. As a Quebecer, I found that question really offensive.

“Yes, there’s lots of work to do to continue to fight systemic racism across this country and every part of this country. But I don’t think that that question was acceptable or appropriate.”

READ MORE: ‘No. Absolutely not’: Trudeau says he doesn’t regret calling election during 4th wave

Trudeau made the comments as the Liberals announced they were launching a new advertising campaign in Quebec.

O’Toole went further, promising that as prime minister, he would never challenge a law passed by a provincial legislature.

“Quebecers are not racist, and it’s unfair to make that sweeping categorization,” the Conservative leader said during an event in Mississauga, Ont. “They’ve made decisions and laws passed by their national assembly. I will respect that.”

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Click to play video: 'Quebec premier criticizes Trudeau, says O’Toole would be easier to work with'
Quebec premier criticizes Trudeau, says O’Toole would be easier to work with

Singh during a news conference in Ottawa said systemic racism and discrimination are not isolated to one province or territory, suggest one of the biggest examples is Ottawa’s failure to address boil-water advisories on First Nations.

“This is not a problem of any one province or territory,” he said before flying to British Columbia to vote in an advance poll in his riding. “It exists everywhere in Canada. And to tackle it, we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s everywhere and work together towards eradicating it.”

Blanchet, who also voted in an advance poll on Friday, accused the other three leaders of coming too late to Quebec’s defence.

READ MORE: Trudeau plays defence as opposition leaders fight for points in English election debate

“I will let Quebecers measure the credibility of these renewed affections, which did not appear when the time was right,” he said in French.

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He also defended the law, saying in English: “Religion has never protected equality for women within the state and never will. We are not the ones working with discrimination in mind.”

Others were equally critical of Trudeau, O’Toole and Singh, but for different reasons: Not standing up to Blanchet and clearly denouncing Bill 21.

“When the other party leaders did not step in to argue that Bill 21 does engage in act of systemic discrimination, that’s shameful,” said Mustafa Farooq, chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which is challenging the law in the Court of Appeal of Quebec.

Canadians United Against Hate founder Fareed Khan accused Blanchet of getting “all huffy” during the debate, adding: “I would say to Mr. Blanchet, if he was in front of me: `If you don’t want to be labelled as a xenophobe and a racist then don’t support xenophobic, racist legislation.”’

–with files from Alessia Maratta, Global News


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