The new Quebec government's love-hate relations with the Jewish community

There is probably no doubt that the new CAQ government will try building links with the Jewish community sooner rather than later.

OALITION AVENIR DU QUEBEC party members celebrate in Quebec City on October 1 (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE)
OALITION AVENIR DU QUEBEC party members celebrate in Quebec City on October 1
(photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE)
MONTREAL – A bit like the 1977 legislative election in Israel, the last legislative election in the province of Quebec on October 1 was a revolution in multiple regards. Both “old’’ parties – the centrist and anti-Quebec independence Liberals and the center-left pro-independence Parti Québécois – had their worst result in history. Unlike almost every Quebec election since 1970, this was the first election in Quebec not fought on opposition or support to Quebec independence.
It was a newer party founded in 2011 named the Coalition Avenir du Québec (CAQ) that won a strong majority. The center-right and Quebec-nationalist (but not pro-independence) CAQ did really well among French-speaking Quebecers, especially outside Montreal, winning a panoply of seats which voted one way for many decades. The CAQ platform is a mish-mash of a lot of things. In the Israeli context, it can be compared to Kulanu or Yesh Atid being a reformist party in policy but a party which is leader-centered. Just like in Israel for the Hebrew language, the French language is a very important issue in Quebec, and it is possibly the main vector of Quebec culture. Also, like in Israel, a number of French-speaking Quebecers are secular in religious attendance but they consider themselves of the Roman Catholic faith by tradition.
The Jewish community in Quebec is quite diverse. You have an old community of Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish as a mother tongue up until the 1940’s. You also have a big community of North African Jews who usually speak French as a first language, along with an Orthodox (or hassidic) community which usually speaks Yiddish with each other. Montreal has quite a large hassidic community. Just like in Israel, you also have new waves of Francophone Jews who escaped France in the last few years, along with Russian Jews who escaped from the former Soviet Union.
Being a province where Jewish specialties – such as smoked meat sandwiches and Montreal-style bagels – are part of mainstream Québécois culture, it’s not a surprise that Quebec has a long history of Jewish Diaspora presence. This applies too to Quebec politics. Ezekiel Hart was among the first Jewish politicians in the British Empire elected as MP for the city of Trois-Rivières in 1807. The Jewish community also has some political clout, being in majority in one electoral constituency (D’Arcy- McGee) and being a large minority in some other constituencies in Montreal.
FOR A WHILE, and especially among the French-Canadian Roman Catholic clergy – which was all-powerful in Quebec before the 1960’s – the Jews in Quebec were suspected of being closeted communists, in part because a Jewish neighborhood elected Canada’s only Communist Party MP, Fred Rose. Because of his communist sympathies in an era in which the Cold War was starting to rage at full throttle, Rose was then expelled from the Canadian House of Commons. He died a few years later in Poland.
As much as the Jewish community in Montreal is more and more competitive between Liberals and Conservatives federally, the Quebec Liberal Party has a hegemony in a lot of areas of Quebec with a high Jewish population. The constituency of D’Arcy-McGee is the safest seat in Quebec for the Liberal Party of Quebec, where the Quebec Liberal Party winning 70% of the vote is seen as a “bad’’ result. And yet, the CAQ that won the election in Quebec had two Jewish candidates for MP in the constituency of D’Arcy-McGee and another in the constituency of Robert-Baldwin who had nice things to say about the party platform. Both lost to Liberal candidates, but there is no doubt that with Quebec certain move to proportional representation in the next election, it’s possible that the CAQ will have more MPs coming from Montreal.
The reason for the Liberals hegemony among Jews in Montreal is mainly because of the party commitment to Canadian federalism and opposition to Quebec independence. In normal circumstances, the CAQ, with their center-right platform and their opposition to Quebec independence, would probably be an attractive option for the proportion of Jews who vote Conservative federally. But the CAQ never did really well in constituencies with a big Jewish population.
Why? It’s a question of laïcité, or “secularism.” The CAQ loves to be seen as the party who promotes Frenchstyled laïcité. The CAQ wants to ban religious symbols for people working in “positions of authority’’ like police, judges and teachers. These religious symbols include things like the Jewish kippah, the Sikh turban or the Islamic veil. This policy is making some Jews, uneasy even if some Jewish community leaders are not necessarily hostile to the CAQ.
Especially with proportional representation being almost certain in Quebec’s next election in 2022, there is probably no doubt that the new CAQ government will try building links with the Jewish community sooner rather than later. The good thing with the CAQ is that if it does well in things like health care, education or giving tax breaks to families, there is no doubt that slowly but surely, they will become an attractive option for a certain number of Jews in Quebec, just like the Canadian Jewish community became more and more attracted to the federal Canadian Conservative Party in the last decade.