Menu JTA Search

Canadian unity primary issue for voters in national ballot

TORONTO, May 22 (JTA) — National unity has emerged front-and-center as the key issue affecting Canada’s 30 million citizens in the nation’s June 2 elections. For the Canadian Jewish Congress, unity is the primary issue. “We’ve targeted national unity as a major issue because in a sense, the other questions become moot if the country can’t stay together,” said Eric Vernon, an Ottawa-based Canadian Jewish Congress official. But among Canada’s 300,000 Jews, political perspectives vary geographically. Like many easterners, Reisa Teitelbaum, Montreal-based chairwoman of CJC’s Quebec Region, regards national unity as the top issue because the separatist movement has destabilized Quebec’s economy and produced the high provincial jobless rate that is forcing Jewish youth to leave. Western Canadians are not as obsessed about national unity, according to Marilyn Berger, Vancouver-based associate director of the CJC’s Pacific Region. “We care very much what happens and we’re hoping for the best, of course, but it’s not at the top of our agenda,” she said. “Jobs are more important.” The campaign has been anything but mundane. First, Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who has headed the Liberal majority government since 1993, alienated many midwest voters by calling the election just as spring floodwaters from the Red River were cresting at historic levels, threatening the city of Winnipeg. Then former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, who blamed “ethnics and big money” for the separatist loss of the sovereignty referendum in 1995, made headlines again by revealing in a new book that he would have unilaterally declared Quebec independent within 10 days had the separatists won. As if to highlight the contentiousness of federalist-separatist politics even more, a televised French-language debate had to be stopped abruptly after the moderator fainted on stage just as the five party leaders were turning to the topic of national unity. While the separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, has been faltering on its home turf, Conservative leader Jean Charest has been riding a surge of popularity — especially in Quebec where historically the Tories have never been strong. The Conservatives, the historically-powerful party of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, held only two seats in the last Parliament, and many observers say a partial comeback is in the works. A poll in mid-May showed a sizeable drop in popular support for the Liberals, who held 174 of the total 295 seats in the last Parliament. An even greater drop in popular support was registered for the Bloc Quebecois. With 50 seats in the Parliament, Bloc Quebecois has been the official opposition. In previous elections the Jews have traditionally supported the Liberals and, to a lesser extent, socialist parties like the New Democratic Party, which held nine seats in the last Parliament. But David Matas, a Winnipeg-based representative of B’nai Brith Canada, sees no specific Jewish voting pattern emerging this time. “It’s a sign of the integration of the Jews into the Canadian community that the Jewish community tends to divide politically among all the parties,” he said. An expert on the issue of Nazi war criminals in Canada, Matas sees no real difference between the parties on this issue. “There has been foot-dragging for decades through both Tory and Liberal governments,” he said. “It’s hard to see whether a change in government would make a difference to the dossier. It’s caught up in a lethargy that seems pervasive, that’s almost non-partisan.” To help the country’s Jewish community make more informed choices on voting day, the CJC has released a 24-page summary of policy positions. In addition to national unity, the CJC paper identifies the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Canada, the battle against anti-Semitism and racism, and the federal policy on refugees as key Jewish concerns, along with a host of more generic domestic and social-service issues like unemployment and health care.