Marois’ Charter of Secularism backfires in less than 48 hours

Foreign-born PQ member becomes a target

Local PQ candidate, Algerian born Djemila Benhabib stands next to PQ leader Pauline Marois as she responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, on Aug. 14, 2012 in Trois-Rivieres, Que. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

By Alexander Panetta and Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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, the mayor of Trois-Rivieres, where she is running for the PQ, questioned the party’s decision to parachute the resident of Gatineau, near Ottawa, into the central Quebec riding.

The events were the latest iteration of an always intense, sometimes ugly, debate in recent years over perceived threats to Quebec’s cultural identity.

Benhabib’s party has appropriated that cause as an election issue. The PQ says it wants to put identity concerns to rest — with the help of tougher language laws and a new Charter of Secularism, whose guidelines would ban religious symbols like hijabs and turbans in public institutions.

One of the party’s star recruits, Benhabib is a staunch anti-Islamist who has authored a book warning about the dangers of multicultural rectitude.

What angered the mayor of Saguenay, Que., this week was word that Benhabib, in keeping with her committment to secularism, would prefer that the crucifix be pulled down from the provincial legislature chamber.

For the purposes of the current election, Benhabib is actually backing the PQ policy that the cross stay up because it’s an important part of Quebec’s history.

But that wasn’t good enough for Jean Tremblay, the mayor of Saguenay, Que. The conservative mayor has waged a high-profile court fight 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 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, moved to Canada in 1997, 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, Tremblay repeated the remarks — and added to them — in other media interviews throughout the day.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, the mayor cited more examples of why he disagreed with Benhabib and added: “I’m not all that racist.”

PQ Leader Pauline Marois called on him 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 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.”

One Trois-Rivieres woman questioned whether Benhabib was the ideal candidate for the area. Andree Landry said the cause of secularism doesn’t speak to local concerns.

“The values she defends against Islam, veiled women and all that — it doesn’t exist here,” she said as she left a department store across the street from Benhabib’s riding office.

“Maybe it would be good in a city like Montreal because it has different ethnicities, it has more problems with that.”

Landry, who spoke to Benhabib briefly in a local cafe last week, said she still doesn’t know much about the candidate’s ideas for the city.

Regardless, Landry, a Trois-Rivieres resident since 1986, said the fact Benhabib isn’t from the region doesn’t scare her from voting for the PQ.

“She hasn’t hidden her origins — we know she comes from somewhere else,” she said, suggesting that others might not feel the same way.

“If she married a Quebecois, (and) if she announces it, then maybe the people who are against a foreigner would have an easier time accepting it.”

Benhabib’s spouse is, in fact, a francophone Quebecer who worked as a journalist at Montreal’s La Presse newspaper.

Another resident disagreed with criticism of the candidate.

“It’s very shocking,” said Andre Rheault, before entering a store near Benhabib’s riding office.

Rheault said he supports Benhabib and the PQ’s secularism charter.

“I have no problem with Ms. Benhabib,” said Rheault, who used to be a practicing Catholic. “For Quebec, in my opinion, it’s time that we get away from (religions).”

Rheault also said he was also okay with candidates being parachuted in from somewhere else: “I think that if it’s a good person and she can adapt easily and she has good ideas — why not?”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Benhabib was born in Algeria.




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Marois’ Charter of Secularism backfires in less than 48 hours

  1. How is it a charter of secularism, if it favours catholicsim over other religions?
    It’s a classic case of favouritism and bias in the invisible sky faerie gang conflict that has screwed the world up since time immemorial.

    • I think it is more the “social engineering” gang that has screwed up time immemorial, who have sometimes happened to believe in sky fairies (as you put it). Just because the social engineers are going to be secular, or communist, or really upset about english in signs, it is all going to end in tragedy in the end.

      Stop trying to socially engineer people and their culture, and just let them get along as they want to get along, and you don’t have to worry so much about cultural oppression.

      • I guess secularists have to learn that the government does not take some portion of the law seriously.

  2. Wow, for some people, secularism really is a religion, and it looks surprisingly like Christianity – what a surprise!

  3. Beware of candidates that spit at their muslim origins just as to get some recognition and power… Shame on that Djemila…

    • Hey,
      I’m Algerian and I don’t consider Islam as my origins. We were Christian before we were muslims if you know anything about Algerian origins genius. She’s a disgrace for going with separatists, and an embarrasment that’s true, but what’s not to agree with her distaste of Islam or religion for that matter. hmar!

      • “We were Christian before we were muslims” So? What kind of argument is that??? (for your culture, we’ve been muslims far longer than we’ve been christians and in any case the debate is not Islam Vs Christianity, not sure you understand what’s it’s about…)

  4. What a piece of work. Canada welcomes her to this country and she finds a job with the federal government. Now she pisses on us and wants to break up our country. What a piece of work.

  5. In an Independant Quebec, private schools and the English ones should not be subsidized more than 40%, and according to their demographic reality. Currently, “although the demographic weight of anglophones university students is less than 6% in Quebec, the Anglophone universities share between them 30% of the budget allocated by the government to Quebec universities.” So if you follow me, the English universities would normally receive 6% of government subsidies and given that these universities are Anglophone, not of the official national language, they should be subsidized at the same level as private schools, that is to say, it should be subsidized at only 40% of what they would receive if they were French. That is to say 40% of 6%. This is rather far out is it not…! yes that is so. It’s time we wake up, we have a nasty hill to climb.

  6. “Benhabib …currently works as a federal civil servant.”
    Talk about “biting the hand that feeds you”.. What hypocrisy!

  7. Support the separation of Church and Hate. Can we not all get along. If what we wear determines the outcome of who will ultimately win the spiritual prize of life in heaven or paradise, it’s high time the Leafs got new jerseys.

  8. Poor Mrs. Djamila Benhabib soul….she immigrate to Quebec to help together with the PQ destroying Canada a beautiful country offering refuge to millions citizens fleeing their countries like she did……and bashing Islam in general….lack of aptitude of discernment and analysis her decisions….what’s the problem having christian crucifer all over the buildings or on chest of anyone who wanted….what’s wrong with a jew with the kapa covering his head…..what’s wrong with a woman with a veil but open face ( Not a woman with a Burqa for security reasons we are still at war with few islamists terrorists worldwide ). Why not focusing on real Quebec and canadian economical and social problems instead…? About Old christians, old jews, old muslims, old buddhists and other canadian citizens of different religions religions parked in some disgusting residences and suffering physically and emotionally til they will die…and no one to protect them from abuses….What do you think Mrs marois and Mrs Djamila Benhabib

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