Mar. 23, 2003
Quebecers more opposed to war than rest of Canada
Landry congratulates Chrétien on Iraq stance


MONTREAL—Last week, a few nights before the bombing of Baghdad began, Svend Robinson called Montreal "la capitale de la paix" — the capital of peace.

Robinson was speaking at a meeting to launch the campaign of the Union des forces progressistes, the new left-wing party that is running candidates in a number of ridings in the Quebec election, and the remark could be considered easy flattery.

But in fact, Robinson was correct. Montreal has become the largest centre in Canada of anti-war activity. On Feb. 15, one of the coldest days in a very cold month, 150,000 people turned out to march for peace. Last week, when the weather was not as punishing, 200,000 people marched.

And on Thursday night, at the Bell Centre, packed with hockey fans hoping against hope that the Canadiens might save their dying season, the crowd, an unlikely spot for peace marchers, booed the singing of the American national anthem. Rude, but revealing.

The EKOS poll, published in the Star yesterday, confirmed the anecdotal evidence. Quebec is significantly more opposed to the war than the rest of the country — 80 per cent as opposed to 60 per cent — and overwhelmingly supportive of Jean Chrétien's decision not to have Canada participate: 85 per cent support, compared to 71 per cent in the rest of the country.

Traditionally, Quebec has been more pro-American than other provinces; now, even among hockey fans, it is more anti-American.

Ralph Klein and Ernie Eves have both criticized Chrétien; Klein even suggested that it was only socialists who were opposing the U.S. action. But the Quebec consensus crosses all political lines. As Frank Graves of EKOS observed, "(The position on the war) is not really divided ideologically along party lines in Quebec as it is in the rest of the country."

Anyone watching television in Quebec might have guessed that this was the case: All three party leaders, Bernard Landry, Jean Charest and Mario Dumont, are wearing white peace ribbons.

The political imperatives of this consensus have forced the leaders to alter their approaches.

In February, after the huge turn-out of peace marchers, Bernard Landry saw a lesson in the gap between the reaction in Quebec and that in the rest of the country.

"It will simply accelerate the realization of the fact that in Canada there are two nations," he said. "It will bring people to reach conclusions and the conclusion is that Quebec should be sovereign," he said.

Many Quebecers were offended by Landry's political opportunism in trying to use the peace movement for his benefit, and said so.

To be fair, Landry was asked about the potential for a crisis if Canada joined the United States in the war, given that there was a political crisis in Quebec over Canada's participation in the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War.

But Canada has not done so. Chrétien has maintained his position that Canada would only participate in the war if it had the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council.

Landry had the political wit to telephone him and congratulate him on his stance — a gesture that speaks volumes about Chrétien's current popularity in Quebec.

The other leaders have not been so adroit. Charest made a moving comment about the tragedy of war when the bombing started — but did so at a campaign rally at night, when it got little notice.

And Dumont began by insisting that the war would help his Action démocratique du Québec because the media would be taken up with war coverage and his party would be meeting ordinary people, below the radar.

All the evidence suggests the opposite. Dumont's support is dropping steadily, and he is lashing out in frustration.

The uncertainty created by the war seems to be helping Landry. I heard a voter in Sherbrooke say last week that he was undecided, but that if war started, he would vote for the government; he wanted stability.

Charest, whose party is edging ahead of the PQ in the Léger Marketing daily tracking polls, may have his campaign momentum stopped as Quebecers are transfixed by the war in Iraq and worry about the disruption involved in a change of government.

Dumont's youth and freshness, which seemed an asset a year ago, now seems a significant liability.

Landry is presenting the Parti Québécois as a risk-free vote for stability and continuity. He and his strategists gambled that the advantages of fighting an election during a war outweighed the disadvantages.

In doing so, Landry has done what once would have been unthinkable: He has given his unequivocal support to Jean Chrétien on a critical issue of national importance.

Graham Fraser is a national affairs writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Additional articles by Graham Fraser

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