TROIS-RIVIE`RES, QUE., MONTREAL and SAINT-EUSTACHE, QUE. — With three days left in one of the most tightly contested elections in decades, Quebec’s electoral officer yesterday reversed his decision to allow Muslim women to vote without having to lift their face veils to identify themselves.
Chief Electoral Officer Marcel Blanchet invoked emergency powers to change his mind on one of the controversial minority-rights issues that have roiled the campaign and led to death threats, public outrage and repeated criticism by Parti Que’be’cois Leader Andre’ Boisclair.
Mr. Blanchet said his office had been inundated with calls and emails about his decision to allow women to wear the niqab when they voted. His staff was worried and he was assigned two bodyguards. He feared some angry voters would turn out “in the craziest disguises you can imagine” and disrupt Monday’s election.
Mr. Blanchet said it was troubling that he had to reverse his position. “Personally, I would have preferred not to do it. But my concern is to ensure everything unfolds normally, and there won’t be somebody crazy who will cause trouble on Monday.”
The issue affects a small number of Muslim voters. However, it hit a raw nerve in a province that has been enmeshed for months in acrimonious talks over accommodating religious minorities.
As Quebec’s three main political leaders entered the final weekend of campaigning, the latest Strategic Counsel poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV News shows that the three main parties remain in a dead heat, with the PQ getting 31 per cent support, the Liberals 30 per cent and the Action De’mocratique du Que’bec 28 per cent.
Last night, Liberal Leader Jean Charest for the first time stressed the need for a majority government to protect Quebec’s culture and identity and to defend itself in dealing with Ottawa.
“We have always given ourselves a majority government, we need to speak with a strong voice. We are the only French-speaking people in North America and we must be heard,” Mr. Charest said while campaigning in Gaspe’.
Resentment about minorities has played a part in the rising popularity of the conservative ADQ, whose leader, Mario Dumont, has spoken against such accommodations. At the same time, Mr. Boisclair, an openly gay urbanite, was put on the defensive.
“It seems our voice has been heard,” Mr. Boisclair said yesterday after learning of Mr. Blanchet’s decision.
The PQ Leader had spent the day hammering on the issue during a swing through small towns between Montreal and Quebec City, a fertile ground for the emerging ADQ.
He said his party would pass legislation to require that a woman show her face to prove her identity before getting their ballot.
“We won’t negotiate on this. If we have to modify the Electoral Officer Act, we will modify it,” he said to loud applause.
Mr. Boisclair, who is seen as someone who can’t connect with small-town voters, received animated cheers each time he brought up the issue. Again and again, he said he stood for “plain common sense.”
While campaigning in the Magdalen Islands, Liberal Leader Jean Charest supported the chief electoral officer’s decision, saying it did not infringe on religious rights and remained an issue of proper identification of voters.
Shama Naz, a 30-year-old Montrealer who wears a niqab, said the issue has been blown out of proportion. She said Muslim women routinely remove their face veils for security matters. She has done so for her Medicare card photo, and each time she crosses the border to visit her father in New York State.
“It’s common sense. Muslim women have no problem identifying themselves for security reasons,” she said. “If [elections officials] had spoken to me they would have known I wouldn’t mind identifying myself at the ballot box.”
While she would prefer to do so to a female elections worker, she would do so for a man as well, said Ms. Naz, an economics graduate.
“People are usually scared of what they don’t know,” she said of the uproar and yesterday’s change in the law. “A lack of information is driving regulations like this.”
In Montreal, meanwhile, Mr. Blanchet’s office was in the middle of a storm.
The LCN TV network reported that he had received death threats. Karine Lacoste, a spokeswoman for Mr. Blanchet, said he now has two bodyguards.
Mr. Boisclair denied he had stoked the outrage with his criticisms.
“It’s the Chief Electoral Officer’s decision that created this backlash,” he said.
He boasted he was the only party leader to have stated clearly his opposition. “As soon as I heard about it, I thought the Chief Electoral Officer had gone too far.”
Yesterday, Mr. Dumont ripped into Mr. Boisclair for his suddenly aggressive stand.
“In a pseudo-show this morning, he was changing law. It’s really pitiful,” he said.
Mr. Boisclair was nowhere to be seen on the matter of reasonable accommodation when it surfaced as an issue, he said. “He wasn’t standing up for the identity of Quebeckers.”
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