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With the official start of the Quebec provincial campaign, Quebecers better get ready for a maelstrom of over-eager campaign promises, cheesy political photo-ops, psychedelic buses, and — most importantly — for the gloves to come off in record time.

Even though the government is declaring an early start to the campaign, hoping that will give some extra time for the front-running François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec party to trip up and lose its lead, everything will still be decided during a relatively brief period of 39 days. With only a little over a month for each party to convince voters that they deserve a chance to be the ones in power, things aren't bound to stay civil long.

With the province-wide gap between the CAQ and the Liberals narrowed down from nine to six points over the summer, the Parti Québécois (PQ) lagging behind considerably to the point that it now runs the risk of losing official party status, and with a recent Léger poll indicating that a resounding 45 per cent of voters would change their mind on how they would vote, it’s obvious that the number of political orphans not particularly compelled by any of the leaders or their platforms is running high. Those who have thrown their hats in the political ring know they have to offer something audacious — or populist enough — to grab their attention and motivate them to cast their ballot in a months’ time.

An added element in the Oct. 1 election is that for the first time in a long time, the topic of Quebec sovereignty won't be a primary voting issue. All parties have declared their intent not to make it a point of contention — even the PQ. That means Quebecers will have the luxury (or the very strange sensation) of not having to vote for or against a party with that specific threat (or goal, depending on which side of the political spectrum you find yourself) being on their mind.

Given the number of uninspired and undecided voters there is no question that this election will be first and foremost about identity politics. Following recent trends that have already affected federal and Ontario politics, Quebec politicians will wade neck-deep into polarizing identity issues and fear mongering (I'm hoping they stop short of promising « une bière pour une piasse ») because they've already seen that strategy reap rewards for other politicians.

Sowing anti-immigrant sentiment

While Legault has pledged he will run a positive campaign, urging his candidates not to engage in ad hominem below-the-belt personal attacks, his party has already started rolling out questionable and frankly quite dangerous proposals on how to tackle the French language question.

Not only has he advocated for reducing immigration by 20 per cent, he recently defended his position to make legal immigrants who fail a French test "illegal," declaring during an interview, "we are not talking about deporting citizens. These are people who haven't received their citizenship yet."

His constant attempt to scapegoat recently arrived immigrants as unwilling to learn French or adapt to Quebec society plays well to those who fear that immigration endangers Quebec's linguistic and cultural future as a primarily French-speaking nation. It is why, after all, Legault leads by a margin of two to one among francophone voters. His proposal, however, is sheer populism because it does nothing to tackle the issues facing immigrants. These include integration, discrimination, and challenges learning the languages. There are many immigrants who take longer to acquire a language, but that doesn't prevent them from being able to fully contribute to Quebec society as taxpayers and citizens in the meantime.

Needlessly and unfairly targeting new immigrants and conveniently ignoring that legislation in the form of Bill 101 is already in place to ensure the French language’s long-term dominance and viability in the province, may pay dividends among a certain xenophobic crowd. But it divides Quebecers and makes scapegoats out of those who have just arrived. His proposal also conveniently sidesteps the fact that deporting or removing immigrants is a federal jurisdiction, so Legault is not only stoking and legitimizing anti-immigrant sentiment for easy vote pandering, it's also unattainable as a promise.

When François Legault says the CAQ defends “our values" one has to ask whose values, what values, and who is the “them” pitted against the "our" in this equation? Read more from @Toulastake at @natobserver #qcpoli #polqc #cdnpoli

It’s also, frankly, lacking in empathy and understanding. The sheer audacity of asking someone to invest financially and time-wise in Quebec as a future home for them and their family, and then declaring them “illegal” and asking them to leave because their French isn't yet "adequate" after a mere three years is appalling. It's also counter-productive when Quebec is desperate for more manpower and in dire need of new blood to add to its labour force.

François Legault, leader of Coalition Avenir Québec, answered and debated questions from young voters last week at Concordia University, days before the campaign kickoff. Photo by Josie Desmarais

All parties expected to double down

With recent polls placing the CAQ comfortably in the lead, one wonders whether Legault will double down on his questionable identity-driven promises that are certain to attract an older (perhaps, rural) crowd, or ease off.

His recent declaration about state secularism being back on the table indicates he will, in fact, be doubling down on identity politics. Quebecers shouldn't be surprised at talk of state-sanctioned religious neutrality with a distinctly Catholic twist making a reappearance. They should remember, after all, that the CAQ leader has long supported secularism for authority figures like judges and police officers, similar to what the PQ had proposed with its Charter of Values. Back in 2013, Legault found the PQ’s proposed legislation too radical and had proposed a more relaxed version of his own, but still supported secularism all the same.

Playing to the fears that different religious symbols and cultural norms elicit in some Quebecers is crass populism, despite the attempts at "rational" justifications. Legault has repeatedly shown that he is not against employing the use of dog-whistle politics and uttering carefully-worded phrases that appeal to a certain type of ethnic-based xenophobia among Quebec voters, particularly those fearful of the number of immigrants and asylum seekers who have been crossing the U.S. border into Quebec.

When Legault says the CAQ defends “our values" one has to ask whose values, what values, and who is the “them” pitted against the "our" in this equation?

The party’s barely concealed ethnic nationalism is cause for concern, but with the Liberals having voted for Bill 62, Québec solidaire also in agreement with a softer version of secularism, the PQ being architects of the Charter of Values, Quebecers allergic to this type of vote pandering and xenophobia have nowhere to turn.

With the CAQ finally having a real opportunity to to take over the governance of a province that has been dominated by Liberal rule for far too long, the PQ sliding in the polls with independence on the back burner, and the Liberals attempting to hold on to power tooth and nail, this campaign will pit political parties against each other that have everything to gain by playing dirty. Thirty-nine days is an eternity on the campaign trail.

There will be plenty of opportunities for accusations, fumbles, and for opposing parties to capitalize on them, in an attempt to attract the undecided. And if politics south of the U.S. border and west of the Quebec border is any indication, all bets are off on how votes will be gained. Make no mistake about it — Quebec's elections on Oct. 1 will be about ideology and what version of a future Quebec voters are comfortable envisioning.

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Established in 2015, National Observer is an independent, online-only newspaper dedicated to investigating stories about climate change, energy and politics. In 2017, National Observer’s managing editor Mike De Souza won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for his investigation exposing a conflict of interest in the federal review of the Energy East pipeline project, which was subsequently terminated.

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