Whisper campaign questions black Liberal candidate’s appeal outside Montreal

MONTREAL — Within days of entering the Quebec Liberal leadership race, Dominique Anglade was hit with a whisper campaign suggesting the colour of her skin and her connection to Montreal hurt her chances of becoming premier.

The comments didn’t come from the dregs of social media but from people in her own party speaking to two of the province’s most seasoned political reporters. The message was that party members didn’t think Quebecers in regions outside the big cities were ready to vote for a black woman from the province’s multi-ethnic metropolis.

In a recent interview, Anglade said the anonymous Liberal insiders “underestimate Quebecers.”

“Honestly,” she said, ”I would rather respond to what I know as a fact and what people say publicly.”

Denis Lessard of La Presse reported last week the existence of an “anybody but Anglade” campaign among Liberals worried a Montrealer from a “cultural community” couldn’t win over the regions. Michel David in Le Devoir, noted a woman with Haitian ancestry as Liberal leader would represent a big change. “Clearly, not everyone in the party is convinced that Quebec is ready for such a change,” he wrote.

The reporting never identified the people making these claims, but it spoke to very real issues facing Anglade and her party. The Liberals are going to need to figure out how to appeal to the largely white, francophone regions suspicious of Montreal if they want to win power again.

Anglade, 45, is an engineer who was born in Montreal to Haitian parents. She used to be president of the party that now governs, Coalition Avenir Quebec, but quit and joined the Liberals in 2015.

Her only opponent so far in the leadership race, Drummondville Mayor Alexandre Cusson recently said he was ”stunned” by the whisper campaign.

“In 2019, are we still reducing the competencies and the qualities of a person to the colour of their skin?” he wrote in an open letter published on Facebook Nov. 27.

Cusson, who declared his candidacy Nov. 23, recognized that the anonymous comments directed at Anglade were also very much about him — the white man from outside the big city who some see as the Liberals’ winning ticket.

“It’s as if my only qualities are that I am a white man from a region of Quebec that isn’t Montreal …. These comments and insinuations need to stop,” he wrote.

Anglade says she wants to shift the leadership debate away from race. Not only are Quebecers ready to vote for a black woman, she says, but the Liberals are the only party that can offer a fully inclusive, federalist vision of the Quebec nation.

Anglade is positioning herself as a uniter, someone who will defend Quebec’s language and identity but respect the province’s diversity. She is also highly attuned to the need to steer clear of positions that put her at odds with the majority she is trying to court.

For example, she won’t say whether she thinks systemic racism exists in Quebec. The Liberals tried to launch public consultations on systemic racism in 2017 but cancelled them after strong criticism from political opponents, including the man who would go on to be elected premier in 2018, Francois Legault.

“I think we need to recognize that there are still challenges,” Anglade said, when asked if systemic racism exists in the province. “We still have issues with regards to integration.”

And Anglade, who voted against the government’s secularism legislation last June, now says if elected premier she wouldn’t get rid of it. Bill 21, which is facing multiple lawsuits, prohibits certain public sector workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

The law invokes the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield it from court challenges, but the clause must be renewed every five years. Anglade said if she were premier, she would let the clause expire in 2024.

“Every law should be tested in court to ensure it is valid,” she said.

But in keeping with her position not to antagonize the majority in favour of the legislation, Anglade wouldn’t say what she would do if the courts eventually ruled it unconstitutional.

“So you will call me at that moment, and we’ll talk about it,” she said.

Benoit Pelletier, a senior Liberal cabinet minister under former premier Jean Charest, says Anglade is a quality candidate who understands that the party needs to reconnect with the regions if it wants to regain power.

Pelletier, who is now a law professor at University of Ottawa, said in an interview if the Liberals want to reconnect with people outside Montreal they need to leave Bill 21 alone. The party cannot play a role in getting the law tangled up in the courts, he said.

“I don’t know what the winning recipe is,” he said. ”But I can tell you the losing recipe is to mess around with judicial challenges. That seems pretty clear to me.”

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