MONTREAL — The ethnic background of a Quebec election candidate has come under attack in a campaign that has already seen identity frequently used as a wedge issue.
The ill-tempered remarks were aimed at Djemila Benhabib, a foreign-born Parti Quebecois candidate with an Algerian father and an international upbringing.
First, the mayor of one Quebec municipality took shots at her ethnic background Wednesday. Later in the day, the mayor of Trois-Rivieres, where she is running for the PQ, questioned the party’s decision to parachute Benhabib, who lives in Gatineau near Ottawa, into the central Quebec riding.
The events were the latest iteration of an always intense, sometimes ugly, debate over cultural identity that has flared sporadically in Quebec over the last few years.
Benhabib’s party has appropriated that discussion as an election issue. The PQ says it can put the debate to rest with tougher language laws and a new Charter of Secularism, whose guidelines would ban religious symbols like hijabs and turbans in public institutions.
What angered the mayor of Saguenay, Que., this week was word that Benhabib, as a committed secularist, would prefer that the crucifix be pulled down from the provincial legislature.
A 2008 handout photo of Jean Tremblay, the mayor of Saguenay, Que.
For the purposes of the current election, Benhabib is actually backing the PQ policy that the cross should stay because it’s an important piece of Quebec’s history.
But that wasn’t good enough for Jean Tremblay, the mayor of Saguenay, Que. The conservative, religious mayor has fought a high-profile court battle to keep praying at council meetings — another practice that would be curbed under the PQ’s Charter of Secularism.
“I don’t like that these people come here and try to impose their rules,” the populist mayor said in an interview with Montreal radio station 98.5 FM.
“They’re going to make our culture and religion disappear… We pushover French-Canadians are going to let someone who’s coming here from Algeria dictate to us how to behave, how to respect our culture? We can’t even pronounce her name.”
Benhabib was actually born in Ukraine, to an Algerian father and Greek Cypriote mother. She has lived in several countries and currently works as a federal civil servant.
Tremblay’s remarks were decried as racist and ill-informed. One newspaper columnist suggested he
should be stripped of his title, for inciting hatred.
But far from retreating in the face of controversy, the mayor repeated the remarks — and added to them — in other media interviews throughout the day.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois called on Tremblay to apologize.
“I think his remarks are completely unacceptable and irresponsible,” she told reporters during a campaign stop near Montreal.
“He shows that he has a poor knowledge of the progress of Benhabib, who is probably exemplary as to her integration in Quebec society.”
Marois added that she’s proud that Benhabib is on the PQ team, adding that Quebecers are open, generous and tolerant people.
But the PQ’s choice of Benhabib as a candidate in Trois-Rivieres, hundreds of kilometres from where she lives, is a controversial one in town.
The local mayor weighed into the question of her candidacy Wednesday.
Yves Levesque expressed frustration that the PQ would pick a candidate from so far away, when quality local people were available.
He brushed aside questions about Benhabib’s race, saying the question wasn’t really her ethnic background but whether she knows local concerns.
Levesque lamented that the local candidate would be fighting for the cause of secularism; he suggested the issue might be dear to the hearts of Montrealers, but what locals want to talk about is health care, the economy and education, he said.
“Even within the Parti Quebecois, the silent majority are a bit annoyed with the situation,” Levesque told 98.5 FM.
“I have friends who work for the Parti Quebecois, the ’pur laines’ as you call them, who have worked for the Parti Quebecois for a long time who are really sad that someone was parachuted in from the outside.
“We now see that the discourse is about things that don’t concern us.”
At the heart of the dispute with Tremblay is the PQ’s proposed Charter of Secularism, which would restrict religious displays in public institutions.
The policy would apply to the Muslim hijab and the Sikh turban, among other things. It would also forbid municipal councils from beginning their sittings with a prayer — something Tremblay says is done in 400 Quebec municipalities, including his.
He also noted that the fleur-de-lys, the Quebec provincial flag, has a Christian cross on it and he wonders if it would have to be removed.