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.