MONTREAL — A question in last week’s English-language federal leaders’ debate has become a major issue in Quebec, boosting the bloc Quebec in elections and drawing criticism from Quebec politicians, federalist party leaders and the province’s media.

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For those following Quebec politics, the widespread negative reaction to the question, which described the two Quebec laws as discriminatory, was not surprising.

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They say this comes at a time when many Quebecers are particularly sensitive to the idea that English-Canadian journalists, politicians and public intellectuals speak to Quebec – widely referred to as the “Quebec bashing” – And while the province’s popular premier François Legault has successfully portrayed himself as a defender of Quebec’s language and culture.

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“Personally, when I heard that question, I cried,” Martin Papillon, a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal, said in an interview on Wednesday. “Not because I thought the question was outright insulting, but because I felt it was off limits for the anchor of the debate to ask such a weighted question.”

In the preamble of a question to Bloc Quebec leader Yves-François Blanchett last Thursday, debate moderator Shachy Kurl said: “You deny that Quebec has a problem of racism, yet you defend legislation, such as Bill 96. and 21, who marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones.”

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Bill 96 is a language law reform currently before the Quebec legislature, while Bill 21 refers to a secularism law that came into force in 2019 and prohibits certain government employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Papillon said he felt that many Quebecers saw the question as an example of the English-Canadian media not taking the time to understand the issues in the province from Quebec’s point of view.

“Whether this goes too far, whether or not this is a good use of public authority, is a debate,” he said. “But the idea that it is needed, or that it is legitimate for the state of Quebec to develop its own approach to these questions, is not a question.”

He said the suggestion that Quebec has a particular problem of racism reinforces the widespread belief in the province that the English-Canadian media tends to take a condescending tone when talking about Quebec issues.

Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said the question was seen as an example of what is known in the province as the “Quebec bashing”.

Many “Quebecers feel that there are a lot of people outside of Quebec who think Quebecs are racist, who portray Quebecers in a very negative way. So there is a sense that Quebec is under attack,” he said.

He said Blanchett has been able to use it politically.

“The bloc is heading into the polls right now. That’s because it’s used it and said, it wasn’t just an attack against me, it was an attack against Quebec, and I’m the best one to speak on behalf of Quebec and then From, to fight against cursing Quebec,” Beland said.

But it is not just nationalists who have criticized the question, Beland said. It was also criticized by opponents of Bill 21, who say that because it was seen as an attack on Quebec, it makes it difficult for people in the province to oppose the law.

Jack Zwab, president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, said he thought it was a mistake for Kurl to compare secularism legislation with language law reform and systemic racism.

This helped the provincial government and the province’s tabloid media “continue to cast people who legitimately question this law, specifically Bill 21, not being Quebecers,” he said. “What we’re hearing is something like if you oppose Bill 21, or the language law, you are not part of the nation of Quebec.”

Premier Legault, who refers to himself as a nationalist and campaigns on a promise to put Quebec first within Canada, has been particularly critical of Curl’s question, calling it “unacceptable”.

Papillon said Legault, who was popular during the pandemic, has successfully framed the debate on his government’s secularism bill and language law reform “as a debate about Quebec identity and the Quebec nation”.

“This makes it very difficult for political parties, both in the National Assembly, but also, frankly, for federal parties to take a critical stance on these laws,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Quebec legislature voted unanimously to ask broadcasters to apologize for the question they described as “Quebec bashing” – a resolution introduced by opposition liberals, who voted for Bill 21. was opposed. A day later on the federal campaign trail, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all organized a debate asking the broadcasters’ group to apologize for the question.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 16, 2021.

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This story was produced with financial support from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.