If Day 1 of Canada’s 43rd federal election campaign demonstrated anything, it is that an election, once it is called, tends to take on a life of its own.
No sooner was it officially launched on Wednesday than the campaign conversation had veered off script.
Neither Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau nor his Conservative rival, Andrew Scheer, nor the other party leaders had planned to give the SNC-Lavalin file pride of place on the first day of their campaigns.
Trudeau has no interest in revisiting the affair that derailed his government for the better part of two months this year, at significant if not necessarily lasting cost to Liberal support in the pre-election polls.
Scheer milked the issue for all it was worth last winter. If prosecuting the SNC-Lavalin affair was going to win him or any other opposition party the election, Trudeau’s Liberals would not be going in the official campaign with an edge on the competition.
The finding last month by ethics commissioner Mario Dion that Trudeau had breached the ethics code in his dealings with former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould barely caused a pause in the Liberals’ climb-out from the fallout of the controversy.
But a Globe and Mail report that the RCMP – while it has not yet made a determination as to whether to pursue a criminal investigation into the file – may be constrained in its search for information by a veil of cabinet secrecy was hardly going to go unanswered.
Trudeau’s response was predictably laconic. Scheer’s comments were as predictably indignant. Both leaders dutifully went through their expected motions.
But with his first campaign stop in Quebec – a province that has tended, along with its premier, to side with Trudeau throughout the SNC-Lavalin affair – the Conservative leader did not seem to have his heart in tearing up his shirt over it again, or at least not as much in French as in English.
And then Quebec’s controversial imposition of a secular dress code on some of its public servants – ranging from teachers to police officers, crown prosecutors, judges and prison guards – made an unexpectedly early appearance in the campaign conversation.
Under repeated questioning from the media, Trudeau reiterated his conviction that the Quebec law, known as Bill 21, is an unjustified infringement on fundamental freedoms.
He left the door open for a Liberal federal government to eventually join the groups and individuals currently challenging the law in court. But he also said he felt it would, at this juncture, be “counterproductive” to intervene.
There is little doubt that a frontal federal move against Bill 21 could turn more than a few Quebec opponents of the law into defenders of the national assembly’s right to adopt the legislation it sees fit.
The debate – at that point – would shift from one over the respect of fundamental rights to one over provincial autonomy.
The audience in Quebec for Trudeau’s take on charter rights is ultimately much larger than for the notion that Ottawa should try to break or overrule the will of the national assembly.
Scheer was even more reserved.
His Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, supports the legislation as undoubtedly do other Quebec Conservative candidates.
Scheer stuck to his contention that he, as prime minister, would never introduce similar legislation. But a Conservative federal government, he also stated, would not participate in a court challenge of Bill 21.
Much as the national parties would rather not have a prolonged discussion over the contentious but popular Quebec secularism law during the federal campaign, the issue is not necessarily about to go away.
The law enjoys the backing of a solid majority of Quebecers and the Bloc Quebecois believes it can score points by highlighting the fact that none of the main federalist parties support it.
At a time when the Quebec/Ottawa front is otherwise relatively quiet, this is one issue the Bloc believes is a winning one. And indeed late Wednesday, Premier Francois Legault called on all parties to say clearly that they would not challenge his secularism law.
It is not clear that many Quebec voters see the legal fate of Bill 21 as a federal ballot-box issue.
In the last election, attempts by the Bloc and the Conservatives to win votes in the province by promoting a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies did not turn out to have the traction they had hoped for.
Trudeau’s vocal opposition to the ban did not stop his party from winning a majority of Quebec seats.
But a larger question is whether the issue of the exercise of minority religious rights in the public space has legs strong enough for the debate to spread beyond the province. And, if so, whether views outside Quebec are as monolithic as those of the leaders of the main parties.
That notion may yet be tested between now and the Oct. 21 vote.
If Day 1 of the campaign is any indication, the 2019 election will not lack for sleeper issues.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.