Quebec’s secularism law and immigration policy were the controversial issues at an election debate in the riding of D’Arcy McGee

D’Arcy McGee virtual debate on Sept. 22, 2022.

Quebec’s secularism law, in force since 2019, was the most contentious issue in a pre-election debate among candidates in D’Arcy McGee riding on Sept. 22.

The clash over Bill 21 was not among the candidates but between the Liberal’s Elisabeth Prass and former Hampstead mayor Bill Steinberg. Prass contended her party has always opposed the bill which prohibits some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Steinberg, who was defeated last November after 16 years as mayor, said he was “shocked” by Prass’s claim, asserting the Liberals have said they only support lifting the ban for teachers.

Prass shot back that was “an absolute lie” and that she was “truly appalled to hear” Steinberg say that.

The two-hour virtual event was co-hosted by B’nai Brith Canada and the Knights of Pythias. With the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), Québec Solidaire (QS) and Parti Québécois (PQ) candidates absent, there was largely agreement among the remaining four participants—Bonnie Feigenbaum of the Conservative Party of Quebec, Marc Perez of the Canadian Party of Quebec, and Joel DeBellefeuille of Bloc Montreal—on the other legislation preoccupying many D’Arcy McGee electors, the new French language law Bill 96.

Earlier in the debate, Prass charged that the Conservatives, under leader Éric Duhaime, not only support Bill 21, but some in the party want to extend the ban on religious wear to other public servants.

Feigenbaum conceded the point, but said others, like herself, are opposed to the law. She pledged that if elected on Oct. 3 she would work to have it scrapped, emphasizing that Conservative MNAs would be permitted free votes and even be required to represent the views of their constituents.

“I am totally against Bill 21… It’s a travesty and needs to be totally taken out.”

Feigenbaum, who until August was an active Liberal party member, also dissented from the Conservatives’ position on immigration, a major issue in the election campaign.

The Conservatives propose a limit of 50,000 immigrants next year, similar to the CAQ which has made reducing immigration a priority since it was first elected in 2018, while Prass said the Liberals would allow up to 70,000.

Feigenbaum thinks it should be higher than 50,000 and said she is committed to trying to convince the party.  

The CAQ’s attitude to immigration is dissuading people from coming to Quebec, she said, a point agreed upon by the other three candidates.

Feigenbaum said she switched to the Conservatives out of disappointment with how the Liberals handled the French language bill.  “They clearly failed to stand with us… I’ve lived through too many Liberal lies.”

The Conservatives, she said, would repeal the law and “start from zero” in crafting a new one. Prass said the Liberals would keep only a couple of sections.

Prass, a longtime party staffer, said she too was disappointed in how the Liberals initially approached the bill, but said they recognized their mistakes and voted against it in the end. “I would not be here today if they had not.”

Perez, who claimed he has the support of Steinberg, was adamant in his denunciation of Bills 21 and 96, as well as Bill 40, which abolished school boards.

Although French is his mother tongue, Perez argued the new law does nothing to protect the language and only violates the rights of anglophones, allophones and Indigenous people.

He and the other two Jewish candidates drew attention to their identity.

Perez, who wears a kippa and is a Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue executive committee member, said he joined the Canadian Party, formed this year to defend minority rights, as a matter of conscience.

Prass, who was wearing a Magen David necklace, described herself as the daughter of Latvian and Moroccan immigrants disturbed by the divisions the CAQ is creating. Feigenbaum noted that she is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and a first-generation Quebecer.

All three affirmed unreservedly their parties would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism in response to a question from Marvin Rotrand, national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, as did DeBellefeuille, who heads the Red Coalition, a nonprofit fighting racial profiling.

D’Arcy McGee has the largest Jewish population of Quebec’s 125 ridings. Liberal David Birnbaum, the sole Jewish MNA, is stepping down after two terms.

Solidly Liberal throughout its history, except in 1989 when the now-defunct English-rights Equality Party staged an upset, D’Arcy McGee remains a safe Liberal seat, according to the poll aggregator

A Mainstreet Research poll at the time of the debate bears that out. Among the 301 people surveyed, 42 percent said they intend to vote Liberal, 21 percent CAQ, 16.2 percent Conservative, 9.6 percent QS, 6.6 percent Canadian Party, and about 2 percent each for the PQ and Bloc.

Rotrand said CAQ candidate Junlian Leblanc sent a terse thanks, but said he could attend the debate. QS candidate Hilal Pilavci declined because she was assisting with the second televised leaders’ debate occurring at the same time, but offered to later answer written questions. PQ candidate Renée-Claude Lafontaine did not respond to repeated invitations, he said.