MONTREAL — As they observed Passover last week, many members of Montreal’s 100,000-strong Jewish community were also celebrating what some called a liberation of another sort: the defeat in provincial elections of the nationalist Parti Quebecois, which had been trying since 1994 to promote Quebec’s secession from Canada.
The Parti Quebecois, or PQ, was ousted April 14 after two stormy terms in office by the federalist-minded Liberal Party, which won 76 seats in the 125-member provincial legislature to the PQ’s 45. The remaining four seats were won by the conservative Parti D’Action Democratique. The Liberals were supported by an overwhelming majority of the province’s Jewish voters, and their victory clears the way for what many Jews believe will be a healthier investment climate and less punitive enforcement of laws favoring the French language.
An improved economic and political climate, in turn, is likely to stanch the steady exodus of young Jews from Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province, and might, optimists suggested, prompt the return of some Jews who previously migrated to Toronto or the United States.
“For the community, it’s a fantastic thing,” said Mel Hoppenheim, a prominent Montreal businessman. “I think the new government will be incredibly tuned in to our situation. They realize the importance that we play in this province.”
Hoppenheim predicted an inflow not only of investment capital but also of expatriate Montreal Jews. “I think people were paranoid [about investing in Quebec]. I think our youngsters will be coming back slowly. I’ve already spoken to a few in Toronto, and they miss Montreal.”
Leaders of Jewish organizations were more circumspect in their comments, emphasizing that the Jewish community maintains “good working relationships with all political parties in Canada,” in the words of Joseph Ben-Ami, communications director of B’nai Brith Canada.
The caution masked deep feelings, however. Most Jews are “staunch federalists, can’t stand the PQ and are delighted whenever they’re out of power,” said Harold Waller, a McGill University political scientist. “In that sense, this is a tremendous accomplishment and people are very pleased with the outcome.”
But he was less certain it would reverse the “steady outflow” of Jews that has occurred since the PQ first came to power in 1976. “A lot of people made a judgment that they didn’t want their lives held captive to the whims of the PQ and the voters of Quebec. That concern has been lifted, for the moment, but it’s only one election. There are other elections down the road, and who knows what’s going to happen.”
Quebec’s Jews, largely Ashkenazic and English-speaking, have had a turbulent relationship with the PQ since its founding in 1968. Though founding party leader Rene Levesque was viewed as a liberal with good ties in the Jewish community, many were wary of his followers’ roots in Catholic Quebec’s antisemitic past and feared the movement’s links to third world liberation groups. When the PQ came to power in 1976, it enacted draconian French-language laws that helped prompt an exodus of an estimated 30,000 Jews to Toronto and the United States during the ensuing decade, reducing the Montreal community to Canada’s second largest for the first time. The exodus slowed after 1980, when a PQ-sponsored referendum on secession failed. The party was turned out of office in 1985.
The party returned to power in 1994, and it sponsored another secession referendum a year later, which narrowly failed. The defeat led to the resignation of party leader and provincial premier Jacques Parizeau, who was accused of racism after he publicly blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote.”
Parizeau’s successor, Lucien Bouchard, resigned in 2001 following an incident in which he denounced a PQ political candidate who had cast doubts on the Holocaust and had claimed that Jews were always whining about their lot in life.
Bouchard’s successor, Bernard Landry, who was defeated last week, also went out of his way to maintain good relations with the Jewish community. “He has always had our welfare at heart,” said Joseph Gabay, chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec Region. “After September 11 he called me personally, gave me his cell-phone number and offered his assistance to the Jewish community whenever we needed it.”
Still, the contrast between the PQ leadership and the new premier-elect, Liberal Party leader Jean Charest, could not be greater, Jewish observers say. A youthful, curly-haired, perfectly bilingual politician from Sherbrooke in the Eastern Townships, Charest, 44, is the least nationalistic Quebec leader since the 1960s, said Waller, and has made “a very favorable impression” on the Jewish community.
As guest speaker at a Jewish National Fund dinner in 1999, Charest praised Montreal Jews for their integration into both the English-speaking and French-speaking communities. Their “attachment” to Israel, he said, is not a “contradiction of their attachment to Montreal, Quebec and Canada,” because being Canadian embraces this sort of multiple identity.
Quebec Jewry has become increasingly French-speaking in recent years thanks to an influx of French-speaking Sephardic Jews from North Africa, who now number about 20,000, or one-fifth of the community. Still, most Jews, including most Sephardim, remain suspicious of the ethnocentrism that is seen as fueling much of the PQ’s support. The party won 33% of the popular vote last week to the Liberals’ 46% and Action Democratique’s 18%.
Many observers caution against exaggerating the importance of the PQ’s defeat. Far from being “a nail in the coffin of separatism,” the election outcome might be a “last chance” for federalists to convince the French-speaking majority that Quebec can flourish within Canada, said Montreal attorney Steven Slimovitch, national legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada.
Referring to former Montreal Jews who traveled Highway 401 to Toronto, Slimovitch said: “A lot of these ‘401ers’ took that road because of restrictive language policies, because of the economy. It’s a big decision to leave your home and establish yourself somewhere else. You don’t take the decision to come back lightly. Their bags weren’t packed waiting to see the results of the election.”
The Liberal victory may mean a less heavy-handed approach to the language laws. Although no one expects a retreat from the dominant status of French as the language of the workplace, there may be a more relaxed attitude toward the use of English alongside French on commercial signs.
Meanwhile, Charest’s pledge to reduce taxes, coupled with the prospect of more investment in Quebec, could make more money available to support Jewish community services. “It all starts with funding,” said Hoppenheim, a past chair of Montreal’s Combined Jewish Appeal, who noted that Montreal Jews raise more money per capita than any other community in North America.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.