The campaign to separate Quebec from Canada has taken a nasty turn, with separatist leaders targeting ethnic immigrants and English-speaking Quebecers, including the region’s Jewish population.
Fearful that they may lose an upcoming referendum on the fate of the province, separatist leaders have gone on the offensive, accusing those opposed to secession of being racist. The referendum is scheduled to occur before the end of the year.
The charges have led the Canadian Jewish Congress to enter the fray as part of a coalition of groups bent on preventing the already overheated campaign from taking an even nastier turn.
Recent polls, which show that a large majority of Quebecers do not wish the province to secede from Canada, are placing die-hard separatists on the offensive.
One leader, longtime separatist hardliner Pierre Bourgault, recently leveled a charge of racism against the province’s English-speaking and ethnic voters.
Both groups are expected to vote overwhelmingly against separation, an idea backed predominantly by the region’s French-speaking residents.
At a political gathering, Bourgault said an overwhelming English-speaking vote against separatism would be a “straight racist” vote.
Bourgault also accused the English-speaking media’s “odious propaganda” for encouraging English speakers to vote against separation.
A month earlier, Bourgault warned of violent reprisals against Anglophones in Quebec if they voted against separation. He issued a similar warning prior to a similar referendum in 1980. The separatists lost that vote by nearly 60 percent.
In the wake of a controversy that erupted over his words, Prime Minister Jasques Parizeau, the leader of Quebec’s provincial government, dismissed Bourgault as his adviser.
Another separatist leader, Philippe Pare, a member of the federal Parliament, caused a stir when he recently suggested that Quebec’s immigrant population step aside “just for once” and let old-stock Quebecers decide their own fate in the referendum.
The separatists’ remarks prompted officials from Quebec’s three largest ethnic groups to issue a joint statement decrying the turn of events.
In the statement, the Quebec chapters of the three groups — the Canadian Jewish Congress, the National Congress of Italian Canadians and the Hellenic Congress — condemned Pare’s “inflammatory words that imperil the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.”
They said it was unacceptable for an elected representative to recommend depriving a large number of Quebecers of their right to vote based on their ethnic origins.
The groups asked for Pare’s resignation as a member of Parliament, saying that his apology was not sufficient.
The statement also branded Bourgault as a demagogue: “Mr. Bourgault is directly attacking the political and social fabric on which our society is based.”
Jack Jedwab, director of CJC’s Quebec region, said in an interview he was confident that the majority of French Quebecers are “tolerant and democratic.”
“I think the burden right now is on the people who support the separation option to prevent the atmosphere from getting any more poisoned,” Jedwab said.
Regarding Bourgault, he said, “I’ve always felt people should be more cautious to the degree in which they take his remarks seriously.”
The leader of the opposition Bloc quebecois, Lucien Bouchard, recently issued a public condemnation of the comments made by both Bourgault and Pare.
Bouchard rebuked Pare and stripped him of his post as referendum strategist for Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region.
Bouchard also criticized Bourgault’s comments, saying, “For me, it’s not racist to show a manifestation of solidarity. When people decide to vote for the federation of Canada, for me they are not racist, they simply believe in Canada more than in Quebec and they would like to stay in Canada.
“It is their absolute right, and I have nothing to say against that and I will not qualify negatively what they say,” he said.
Bouchard met last week with President Clinton during his official visit to Canada.
If Bouchard had hoped for a pledge of support from Clinton on the separatist option, or at least a promise of non-interference, he was left sorely disappointed.
Clinton made it clear during an address before Canada’s Parliament that he supported a united Canada. Lawmakers gave Clinton a standing ovation for his words of support for Canadian federalism.