Less than a year ago, when everyone knew a provincial election was imminent, I asked a well-known Quebec journalist to assess the chances of Mario Dumont’s right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec party.
The journalist told me the ADQ was “fading away” from the political scene – so much so that Dumont had jokingly worn a “Hello, My Name is Mario” badge on his jacket at a recent event in Quebec City.
He predicted Dumont would quit provincial politics following another disappointing electoral showing, and would run as a Conservative Party candidate in the next federal vote.
I hope that journalist didn’t put any money on his prediction.
In fact, when the provincial vote finally did take place in March, anyone who bet on the results almost certainly would have lost their wager.
The first minority government in Quebec since the 19th century?
The Parti Québécois reduced to third-party status in the legislature?
Mario Dumont becoming Leader of the Opposition, only a few seats short of taking power with a group of faceless, experience-less backwoods backbenchers?
Not me. Not you. None of the prominent prognosticating political pundits in the province predicted this possibility.
How did Dumont go from being a political has-been to a Premier-in-waiting?
Probably by owning the so-called “reasonable accommodation” issue, which has come to dominate public affairs in Quebec, and is becoming prominent in the rest of Canada.
It’s not a new issue: Debates over the assimilation of minority groups and the nature of multiculturalism are as old as immigration itself, and bubble under the surface of many other issues in the public sphere.
The debate boiled over earlier this year in Hérouxville, a small, largely homogeneous Quebec town that garnered international headlines by passing a resolution aimed at largely non-existent foreign “new arrivals” to the town. The resolution banned such things as stoning women to death and burning at the stake.
While Premier Jean Charest dismissed Hérouxville as an isolated incident, Dumont took up the cause, positioned himself as the champion of old-stock Quebec values, and rode that position all the way into the opposition leader’s office in Quebec City.
Charest, meanwhile, created a commission to travel the province and look into the reasonable accommodation question (and also – charged Chantal Hébert – to avoid having to take a political stand on the issue)
Led by two academics, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the commission is in the middle of public hearings that – according to one account – resemble “a roving road show that has given an open mike to anyone who wants to muse out loud about religion and minorities”.
The reasonable accommodation issue is not limited to provincial politics in Quebec. In the lead-up to last week’s by-elections, federal parties were falling all over each other to attack the Chief Electoral Officer’s decision to allow Muslim women to vote without lifting their veils – a decision based on laws those very same parties wrote.
The Prime Minister – whose party appeals to the same voters in Quebec as Dumont’s – even interrupted an official visit to Australia to blast Elections Canada. His party, of course, subsequently did very well in the two by-elections held in the Quebec heartland.
In Ontario, the faith-based-school funding debate that is dominating the current provincial election campaign represents another battle over reasonable accommodation. In this case, how far should the education system go to accommodate minority religious groups? Some of the language used by the Ontario Liberals in the campaign – warning against “segregation” and threats to social cohesion – is certainly Dumont-like.
It’s not a debate that will disappear anytime soon. An SES poll released this week shows reasonable accommodation is very much a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians.
Will politicians continue to exploit that concern? You can bet on it.