Day one of federal campaign shows linguistic divide on SNC-Lavalin, secularism

Day one of the federal election campaign revealed the linguistic fault lines that continue to divide the country in an era when the debate over Quebec sovereignty is largely dormant.

While English-language journalists pressed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on the SNC-Lavalin affair and claims that his government is frustrating an RCMP inquiry, their French-language counterparts all but ignored the subject — focusing instead on his professed opposition to Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law that forces public servants to remove religious garb while on the job.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he respects the decision the Privy Council Clerk made over the SNC-Lavalin affair during a news conference at Rideau Hall Wednesday. 0:27

It was much the same for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. The English questions centred on the new Globe and Mail report about the government’s alleged deployment of cabinet confidentiality on the SNC-Lavalin file, which is supposedly hampering the work of the police.

From the French contingent following the Tory leader, again, no questions about SNC-Lavalin — but much talk about an apparent shift in Scheer’s position on Bill 21.

Quebec media sought to clarify what Conservative Party of Canada would do in response to Bill 21, which has been described as xenophobic by many in the rest of Canada.

While he has always opposed the law in the past, Scheer has also said it’s the prerogative of Quebec legislators to decide on this matter. He didn’t offer that level of detail today.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer kicked off the election campaign in Quebec where he was asked about the controversial Bill 21. 0:50

“It’s not something that our government, our party would ever consider at the federal level. We will always stand up for the rights of Canadians and the rights for expression and the rights of freedom of religion,” he said at Ottawa’s airport Wednesday morning.

Speaking to reporters later in Trois-Rivières, Que., Scheer refused to say whether he thinks the law infringes on religious rights.

His Quebec lieutenant, Conservative MP Alain Reyes, strongly supports the law.

‘Two solitudes’

The term “two solitudes” was coined by novelist Hugh MacLennan in the 1940s to describe the lack of harmony between English and French Canadians and the disconnect between the two cultures on issues of the day, notably conscription during the First and Second World Wars.

The SNC-Lavalin affair has certainty penetrated the Quebec consciousness — but popular opinion on the issue there is considerably different from popular opinion in the rest of Canada.

For one, the company is a pillar of corporate Quebec, celebrated for its record of innovation and engineering marvels.

Trudeau’s stated defence on the SNC-Lavalin file — that he was simply trying to stave off a bankruptcy to protect the company’s many workers, an argument he repeated Wednesday — resonates with some Quebecers who fiercely defend their homegrown corporate success stories. Talk of takeovers by Canadian or international interests (see: Rona, Alcan) tends to rattle Quebec nationalists.

In English Canada, the company’s reputation has been marred by allegations of gross corporate wrongdoing in Libya and its subsequent lobbying activities to have the federal Liberal government introduce a deferred prosecution regime to settle the matter out of court. The scandal, which claimed the prime minister’s senior adviser and two cabinet ministers, dominated English political media for the better part of four months in the first half of this year.

According to the CBC’s Poll Tracker, the affair pushed down support for the Liberal Party among leaning and decided voters — but nearly all that movement happened outside of Quebec.

And while English Canada has largely embraced the tenets of multiculturalism — including the principle that new immigrants can become Canadian while also retaining some of the cultural traditions of their native lands — Quebecers have been decidedly more sceptical about the concept. The term of choice in the province is “interculturalism,” which champions the idea of immigrants integrating into the majority French-Canadian culture.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission of 2008 fuelled a debate in that province about “reasonable accommodation” and how far the Quebec state should go to make ethnic and religious newcomers feel at home.

While that landmark commission recommended some public servants — notably judges, police officers and prison guards — be barred from wearing religious garments like the niqab and the kippah on the job, the current provincial government has gone further still, demanding that virtually all public servants — including teachers — go to work without wearing religious symbols — like the turban worn daily by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

‘That’s hurtful’

Singh said it’s sad that a person like him, the leader of a party vying for power, could not teach schoolchildren in Quebec.

“It’s now a law to discriminate (against) people because of the way they look. That’s hurtful. I’m hoping that my presence in Quebec as someone who clearly has a turban, has a beard — maybe he’s got nice, long hair as well — is a way to show people that, ‘Hey listen, I believe in fighting for your identity,'” Singh said at a campaign stop in London, Ont.

The law is hugely popular among francophone Quebecers, who believe it will protect the “laïcité” — the “secularity” — of the state.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet launched his campaign in Quebec City today promising to fight for a religiously neutral state — an echo of Quiet Revolution-era, when Quebecers began to dismantle the Roman Catholic Church’s considerable control over public life.

Like Gilles Duceppe before him, when he held forth on the issue of the niqab in the 2015 election, Blanchet will try to paint federalist party leaders as insensitive to Quebec particularities.

That’s likely why Trudeau walked a fine line Wednesday at his campaign kickoff. Aware that his party is poised to make gains in the province (if current polls are to be believed), Trudeau has said he opposes the bill but will leave it to others to challenge its constitutionality in the courts.

“I’m very pleased Quebecers themselves are challenging the bill before the courts. I’m deeply opposed to Bill 21. I don’t think we should be legitimizing or allowing discrimination against anyone,” Trudeau said, adding it would be “counterproductive” for the federal government to step in now.

Scheer also danced around the issue. While eager to bring new Canadians into the Conservative fold in the rest of Canada, Scheer is also courting soft nationalist voters in rural Quebec who support Bill 21.