French debate gives leaders last major stage from which to sway Quebecers

French debate gives leaders last major stage from which to sway Quebecers

OTTAWA — In Ascot Corner, Que., population 2,000, 50 farmers and a few tractors showed up this week to protest outside an all−candidates meeting.

Fifteen minutes away, in Sherbrooke, Calgary Conservative Jason Kenney came bearing his party’s message on religious face−coverings as he campaigned with local candidates.

And in Quebec City, the National Assembly voted Thursday to condemn acts of hate and violence against Muslim citizens.

The federal campaign is hot in Quebec, with a few particularly provocative topics with the potential to shake up the vote. The final French−language debate on Friday, hosted by the TVA network, has become a high−stakes event for the leaders tussling over the province’s 78 seats.

In recent weeks, the NDP’s polling numbers in the province have softened, opening up the possibility of unexpected gains for their rivals.

For example, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is hoping to win back seats his party formerly held in Montreal. He was in the city’s suburbs Thursday, promoting more transit infrastructure to alleviate the city’s notorious gridlock

The emotional issue of religious accommodation and specifically the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, has become one of the most contentious issues. There is wide support in the province for the Conservative and Bloc Quebecois position that women wearing the niqab be forced to remove it when swearing the oath.

But the niqab issue also appears to have spurred more that just anti−Islamic rhetoric in the province. A pair of teens tore the headscarf from a pregnant woman in Montreal earlier in the week, causing her to fall on the ground.

On Thursday, the National Assembly passed a unanimous motion saying that “Muslim Quebecers are full citizens and this legislature condemns without reservations hate speech and violence against all citizens of Quebec.”

Also Thursday Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley said she was troubled by how minority rights are being debated in the election campaign. She said it’s not helpful that minority rights issues are becoming political footballs, but did not elaborate.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair has criticized Harper and Duceppe for using the divisive issue to score political points, while acknowledging that many people feel strongly about it.

“The person who has the most to lose is Mr. Mulcair, because it’s his support base which is the most divided on the niqab issue,” said Louis Massicotte, a political science professor at Laval University.

“He counts on the support of Quebec nationalists and they’re quite sensitive in general to questions of integration.”

Despite the attention to the niqab, pollster Christian Bourque said many Quebecers watching the debate will be trying to decide whether Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau has the best chance of beating Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

“If they feel Justin has the wind in his sails, some will go in his direction because he’s got that potential to beat Mr. Harper,” said Bourque, executive vice−president of Leger.

“If they still believe that the NDP is the only force that can beat the Conservatives, a lot of people will remain with the NDP and they may get some of that (lost) support back when everybody gets over this niqab thing.”

The Trans−Pacific Partnership trade deal is likely to be a major topic of discussion during the debate, with negotiations coming to a head potentially a few hours before the broadcast.

The Quebec dairy industry worries that deal will weaken the supply management system of tariffs and production quotas and Harper will try to allay those fears.

“It’s really been an issue throughout, from the every beginnings of the campaign,” said Gordon Lambie, a reporter with the Sherbrooke Record in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region. ”

Mulcair has been saying this week that Harper doesn’t have the mandate to negotiate any sort of final deal during an election campaign.

“The NDP will never accept a deal that compromises the supply management system that has provided honest work for thousands of families across Canada,” Mulcair told supporters in Montreal on Thursday.

Mulcair also focused on the party’s stance on the environment, another issue with resonance in the province. The Energy East oil pipeline project has met significant opposition and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe deliberately raised it during the first French−language debate.

Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

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