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The nationalists win in Quebec again, disconcerting many of the province’s Jews

The party that prohibited some civil servants from wearing yarmulkes won in a landslide

Jews in Canada’s second-largest province are bracing themselves for four more years of a nationalist party that has passed several laws curtailing minority rights.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec on Monday won 90 of the 125 districts in the province’s National Assembly and over 40% of the popular vote. The center-right Liberal Party, which for decades has received the majority of Quebec’s Jewish vote, came in second, winning 21 seats and 14% of the popular vote.

Though the nationalist party, known as CAQ, did not center its pro-secular platform during the campaign, its overwhelming victory worries many Jews given its past successful efforts to prohibit religious garb in the workplace and enact pro-French legislation. (Most Jewish Quebecers are English speakers.) Bill 21, pushed by the party and adopted in 2019, forbids some public sector employees, including public school teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols, including yarmulkes and hijabs, while on the job.

“It goes against the grain of two centuries of struggle in Western society for civil rights, from the time Jews weren’t allowed to vote,” said Marvin Rotrand, national director of B’nai B’rith’s League of Human Rights and a former Montreal city councilor.

While Bill 21 has many critics, including from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Francois Legault, who leads the CAQ and will continue as the province’s premier, has defended the law as “reasonable” and supported by a majority of Quebecers.

These people, if they don’t wear religious signs, either a Catholic one, a Jewish one, whatever the religious sign, if they don’t wear the sign when they work in an authority position, they can still work, and they can wear their religious sign on the street at home everywhere else,” he said. 

Pierre Anctil, a history professor at the University of Ottawa and author of the book “History of the Jews in Quebec,” said that despite the Jewish community’s antipathy toward the CAQ for its secularism and pro-French language policies, Bill 21 and other  such laws have had  little effect on Jews.

“It’s had almost no impact,” he said, arguing that Bill 21 was really aimed at headscarf-wearing Muslim women. “I don’t know of Jews who have felt openly hurt. There’s few Jews in the Quebec civil service to begin with.”

But Rotrand disagreed, saying he’s heard of cases where observant Jewish job-seekers simply did not apply for public sector positions, knowing they would be forced to remove their kippot at work.

Parlez français!

In May, the CAQ-led government passed Bill 96, a law that strengthens the province’s already strict laws mandating the use of the French language. The law introduced stricter regulations for businesses, including requiring them to serve clients in French. It also restricted who is eligible to enroll in non-French language elementary and high schools, as well as some post-secondary schools.

Rotrand noted that the law affects the majority of Quebec’s Jews, three-quarters of whom speak English as their first language.

Both Bills 21 and 96 have been challenged in court, though a portion of the Canadian constitution known as the Notwithstanding Clause allows provincial governments to enact legislation that is in violation of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been at the forefront of the legal fight against the secularism law. Executive Director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said Monday’s election results would have no effect on the court case.

“We haven’t looked at this bill in terms of politics, we look at it in terms of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We would push any party in power to repeal it as a top priority.”

The CAQ has made stunning gains since its 2011 founding, displacing the two parties that have traditionally traded power in Quebec politics. The Liberals saw their hold in the National Assembly shrink from the already paltry 31 seats won in 2018. The sovereignist Parti Quebecois, which since 1980 has led the province to referendums on whether to remain in Canada, has seen its relevance virtually disappear, winning just three seats on Monday.

A weak voting bloc

Montreal is known for its bagels, and at one time had the largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of New York and Israel. But Jews have little electoral power in Quebec. Just under 100,000 Quebecers identify as Jewish, according to a 2011 census, the most recent year for which data is available, in a province of over 8.5 million. Of those, the vast majority reside in Montreal, the province’s largest city, with a large cluster congregating within a single electoral district. 

Despite the lack of voting power, Rotrand said B’nai B’rith has managed to maintain “fairly good relations” with CAQ leadership, and he praised the provincial government’s condemnation of antisemitic incidents.

While anti-Jewish attacks have been on the rise in recent years, civil rights lawyer Julius Grey, who has been involved in legal challenges to the recent language law, argued that Quebec as a whole isn’t particularly antisemitic but that a nationalistic “element of xenophobia” is active in the province.

Its Jews may feel a “a sense of apartness and that’s common to many, many groups today,” he said. “But Quebec is not worse than everyone else.”

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