OTTAWA—The New Democrats and Greens are recoiling after the Bloc Québécois called on voters in the province to support candidates “qui vous ressemblent” — a phrase that can be translated as “who look like you” or “who are like you.”
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet made the statement during the final minutes of the French-language election debate Wednesday night, which was hosted by the Quebec TV network TVA. Moments later, the party posted the message on Twitter, provoking denunciations of “racism” and “dog whistle” politics from scores of users.
The post urged votes to “choose men and women qui vous ressemblent, who share your values, who carry your preoccupations and who work for your interests, for the interests of Quebecers. Only of Quebecers.”
In an emailed statement Thursday, Bloc spokesperson Carolane Landry said the phrase is meant to encourage Quebecers to vote for candidates “that want a Quebec that is secular, green, welcoming, prosperous and French. Men and women who share the preoccupations and aspirations of Quebec.”
Landry did not address the criticism of the phrase in her statement.
Speaking in Toronto, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — a practising Sikh and the first federal leader in Canadian history who isn’t white — argued the idea that voters should stick with politicians who are “like” them has no place in contemporary political discourse.
“It speaks to the weakness of someone’s argument if they’re going to appeal to have people vote for them based on the way they look,” Singh said.
“We’re in 2019. I hope that people aren’t going to vote based on the way someone looks.”
Green Leader Elizabeth May was more pointed in her reaction. In an emailed statement to the Star, she called the Bloc message “horrific,” and said “we need to vote for people who represent our values, no matter what they look like.”
Daniel Weinstock, a professor of law at McGill University in Montreal, said the phrase “qui vous ressemblent” can be translated in two ways, and that he suspects the ambiguity of its meaning would not be lost on the professional political communicators in the Bloc Québécois.
Weinstock said that double meaning allows different constituencies the party is targeting to understand the message in slightly different — but significant — ways. “Nationalists in Quebec have been trying to keep together a very unnatural coalition” that supports the provincial Coalition Avenir Québec government, he said, and the Bloc is trying to replicate that in the federal election.
He said this involves courting right-leaning Quebec nationalists suspicious of immigration, as well as more progressive “French-style republicans” who support the ideas of strict secularism that some argue are represented in the province’s controversial Bill 21, which restricts the wearing of religious symbols in the public service.
“It’s very important to their electoral success that they manage to keep those two groups — who really have no business being in bed together politically — together,” Weinstock said.
“Those two groups can hear what they want.”
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Morton Weinfeld, chair of ethnic studies at McGill, said it’s difficult to say what the intention of the phrase is without hearing more about Blanchet himself.
“This may or may not be a dog whistle,” he said, “but one can understand why this will make minorities uneasy, especially in the context of Bill 21.”