Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Elizabeth Thompson, "Fallout from a distant war," Montreal Gazette, August 13, 2006.

Emotions run high over mideast conflict, and political spillover is bad for Tories, good for Bloc

Discussing the bloody conflict that has erupted in the Middle East, the anguish in Steve Pinkus' voice was palpable.

Pinkus is Jewish. He's also a top organizer for the federal Liberal Party in Quebec. These days he is torn, as Quebec's Jewish community and the party he supports clash over the Liberal Party's position in the conflict.

Compounding Pinkus' anguish is the fact that many of his friends - both inside and outside the Liberal Party - are of Lebanese origin.

"Emotions are running very, very high," he said, the tension evident in his voice. "It's very difficult."

While it pales in comparison to the deadly rockets raining down on Lebanon and Israel, the conflict that has erupted in the Middle East has thrown a grenade of its own into the federal political scene in Quebec.

Many Quebec Jews, who have long supported the Liberal party, are openly threatening to switch to the Conservative Party, which they feel has adopted a much stronger pro-Israeli stance.

Many members of the Lebanese community, who have tended to split their votes between the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois in past elections, are now making plans to fight for the Liberals in most ridings in the next election in the hope of ousting the Conservatives, says Youssef Hariri of the Association des Jeunes Libanais.

Far more significant, however, is the reaction of the French-speaking majority in Quebec.

While public opinion polls in the spring showed Harper's Conservatives gaining support in Quebec - support that promised to propel the Tories to a majority government in the next election - more recent polls show that new-found support appears to have migrated back to the Bloc Quebecois.

A recent poll by Decima Research, found support for the Conservatives in Quebec had dropped from 29 per cent in May to 17 per cent in late July while support for the Bloc had climbed from 38 per cent to 44 per cent. Support for the Liberals was at 22 per cent - the first time since the election the Liberals had polled higher than the Tories in Quebec.

Pollster Jean-Marc Leger of Leger Marketing said the Harper government's position on the Middle East has affected its support among Quebecers - support he said had been rising until Harper outlined his position.

"It is the end of the honeymoon for the Conservatives. People are a lot more critical of the Conservatives but it hasn't yet touched the voting intentions."

Conservatives dismiss the recent polls. They point to the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon and humanitarian aid to the besieged country as proof of their government's even handed-approach to the conflict - a conflict they say is about fighting terrorism

"It is not a sustainable position for Canada to remain neutral toward terrorism," said International Co-operation Minister Josee Verner, adding that people like Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal MP Denis Coderre who protested in Montreal last weekend against Israel's actions were "irresponsible" and "lacked judgment."

Some commentators have gone further, suggesting that Quebecers who don't back Israel are anti-semitic or that the Bloc Quebecois is pro-terrorist.

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe bristles at the suggestion.

"What I perceive is that people have no sympathy for Hezbollah, that's very clear and we don't either," Duceppe said, saying that pro-Hezbollah protesters were systematically ejected from last weekend's demonstration in the streets of Montreal.

"It is simply that (Israel's) counter attack is disproportionate. We see the images. Lebanon is in the process of being completely destroyed. Will that help peace? Unfortunately, Israel is in the process of making Hezbollah more popular than it was. That is a grave error."

Part of the explanation of why the conflict has had such an impact on the political terrain in Quebec, lies in the nature of Quebec society and the nature of Quebecers, say observers like Leger and political science professor Guy Lachapelle.

For one, Quebec's Lebanese community is largely French speaking and very closely integrated into French Quebec society.

"The majority of Quebecers know people who live in Lebanon, they have direct contact with people who are talking about what is happening there," said Leger.

Traditionally, Quebecers have tended to be more pro-Arab than other parts of Canada, Leger added.

In a poll conducted July 19-20 for Canadian Press, Leger Marketing found that 67 per cent of Quebecers disagreed with Harper's position in favour of Israel while only 19 per cent agreed with it. The results were markedly different from the nationwide figures in which 48 per cent of those polled disagreed with Harper while 35 per cent agreed with him.

Quebecers tend to oppose war as was evidenced by the strong resistance in Quebec to any Canadian involvement in the war in Iraq, Leger said.

"Quebecers are very tolerant and very pacifist. War is not something that people like even if the reasons for the war can be explained," he said, adding that Quebecers tend to see Israel as the aggressor in this conflict.

French Quebecers also tend to get news and information from different international sources, including newscasts from France, while news available to English Canadians tends to be influenced by the U.S., he added.

Quebecers have a much more sophisticated understanding of foreign relations and a much more nuanced position on the Middle East conflict, echoed Lachapelle.

"I think Mr. Harper is in the process of going against the traditional position (of Canada) and against the position of Quebecers in general, which is that war is really the weapon of last recourse."

Lachapelle said the Conservative government's position on the Middle East has also led Quebecers to question whether Harper really understands Quebec.

"You sense that Mr. Harper doesn't have the sensitivity to what is happening in Quebec and Quebec public opinion. ... despite his efforts to learn French, to do press conferences (in French) we're still in the symbolic."

Duceppe says one thing that is hurting the Conservatives in Quebec is the perception that they are blindly following the lead of the United States in their position on the conflict.

"On the Middle East, their policy is very much aligned with that of the United States and that displeases Quebecers."

The Conservatives, however, deny that they are taking orders from Washington, saying the government's position is that of the G8. They also believe that the government's position and its strong stance against Hezbollah and terrorism has the support of Quebecers.

"On the specific issue of the Middle East, I think that what Canadians and even Quebecers appreciate is that Canada has a clear position, a position that is in line with the international community, said one Conservative strategist from Quebec. "What Quebecers and in general Canadians do not appreciate is a political party like the Liberals that is divided and, quite frankly, doesn't have a position."
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