Bloc targets strong Liberal ridings

Duceppe courts the ethnic vote - `You are part of modern Quebec'

Élections 2006

MONTREAL-Gilles Duceppe is spending a lot of time these days on rue Jean Talon and Boulevard St. Michel in Montreal.
Over the last few days, he has been meeting Algerian business owners, Tunisian restaurateurs, Haitian cab drivers, Lebanese activists and leaders from a wide range of cultural communities.
This is multicultural Montreal, what Duceppe calls "le Québec moderne." And at Bloc Québécois gatherings, you can now hear the aspirate swish of Arabic and the musical intonation of Haitian Creole in the crowds.
On Wednesday, standing in a packed, ground-floor room of an Algerian community centre, Duceppe talks about the work the Bloc has done with various immigrant communities.
"But we work with you as Quebecers, because you are Quebecers," he says. "Without exception. Everyone who lives in Quebec is a Quebecer. You are part of this modern Quebec."
It is the message that he gives again and again - across Montreal, in traditional Liberal strongholds.
The Bloc leader began the day on Wednesday meeting with his new Montreal candidates, who include three of Haitian background, a couple of Middle-Eastern background and one of Armenian origin.
He tells them that there is a new confidence and openness toward the Bloc in these non-French, non-English communities.
"That's very encouraging," he says. "And it is very encouraging for all of Quebec, because it gives confidence elsewhere, in Quebec's other regions, about the possible future of Quebec."
By breaking into the multicultural communities in Montreal, Duceppe says, the Bloc can not only succeed in defeating Liberal MPs like Denis Coderre and Pierre Pettigrew, but it can also reassure Quebecers who are nervous that his party is ethnocentric and inward-looking.
The result, he hopes, will be a new identification with Quebec rather than with Canada.
At a news conference, he cites a poll showing that 18 per cent of Quebecers born outside the province support the Bloc, but among second- and third-generation Quebecers, 56 per cent support the party.
The result is quite a different style of campaign.
In 1997, 2000 and 2004, Duceppe spent the bulk of those campaigns in French-speaking Quebec and made only a few token appearances in ridings with strong ethnic communities.
"We've picked up this campaign where the last campaign left off," says Duceppe adviser Pierre-Paul Roy. "In the last campaign, we went into some of these ridings at the very end of the campaign. Now, we have targeted them." There are some signs of success.
Hassan Hassan is a butcher who came to Canada from Lebanon 14 years ago - and has come to a rally for Maria Mourani, a Bloc candidate of Lebanese origin who is running in Ahuntsic riding against Liberal incumbent Eleni Bakopanos.
Until now, Hassan has always voted Liberal. This time, for the first time, he is voting for the Bloc.
When asked why, he says: "Because of ..." and turns to his 17-year-old daughter, Douaa, and asks her to translate an Arabic phrase.
"Le scandale des commandites," she says - the sponsorship scandal.
Ah yes, the sponsorship scandal. Duceppe and his candidates use it again and again. Mourani tells the rally that she really had not expected that kind of behaviour in Canada.
"We are familiar with countries in other places where the government steals without worrying about it," she says. "But we have the capacity to punish a government which has stolen from us."
Mourani tells the crowd that a Bloc MP goes to Ottawa "to defend his country, Quebec." But not all of those who have come out to support her will necessarily go that far.
`Times have changed; old stock Quebecers are more open'
Jean-Roch Boivin, retired PQ activist
Hassan, for example, says he likes the Bloc's social platform and its position on the Middle East (Duceppe says that the Bloc is for the equality of Palestine and Israel, living peacefully side by side), but there is a limit to his support.
He brings his hand down like a butcher's cleaver, as if to mark the line he will not cross.
"Independence," he says. "I don't support the Bloc in that."
Jean-Roch Boivin, a veteran Parti Québécois activist who worked closely with the late PQ premier René Lévesque, has come to the rally. Now retired, he recalls how Lévesque tried hard to win support in ethnic communities, but without success.
"Duceppe is doing it much better than the PQ," Boivin says. "Times have changed; old stock Quebecers are more open." But he is not surprised that new Bloc voters like Hassan will not necessarily vote Yes in a referendum.
"We can't use this vote as a barometer," he says.
This is Duceppe's fourth campaign as Bloc leader. In 1997, he had just been chosen leader when former prime minister Jean Chrétien called the election, and it was an uncomfortable experience for him.
That was when he visited a cheese factory wearing a hair net, producing an image that has lived on in hundreds of political cartoons.
He ran a much better campaign in 2000, but his attacks on Liberal scandals did not stick, and the Liberals gained ground, winning seats that the Bloc had assumed they owned.
The 2004 election was easy, so smooth that reporters nicknamed his tour Club Zen, and wrote about how Duceppe watched films in his bus.
This year, there are some classic elements to the campaign that have been honed with experience.
Duceppe usually begins the day with an event in the morning - a meeting with candidates or a policy announcement - followed by an encounter with journalists. Then, after the TV reporters have had time to file their reports to the noon news broadcasts, there is lunch and an afternoon event, often followed by a second scrum where he can react to what other leaders have said.
Finally, there is often an evening event with supporters, where he pumps up their enthusiasm, tears into the Liberals for corruption and scandals, talks about sovereignty and tells the party volunteers not to take anything for granted.
Early in the campaign, there was a long tour of the province, into constituencies in the Gaspé, the Lower North Shore and the Saguenay, where Bloc MPs are not threatened. Since then, Duceppe has been concentrating on the ridings he hopes the Bloc can win from the Liberals - on the South Shore, on the Island of Montreal and in the Outaouais region across from Ottawa.
But despite the practice that has come from four campaigns in less than 10 years, there are still slips.
"Duceppe is making little mistakes," Université de Montréal political scientist Pierre Martin says.
Martin notes Duceppe's campaign stop on Tuesday, when he zipped up to an ice-fishing festival near Trois-Rivières, and was embarrassed by the festival organizer who said he missed the sponsorship program since he lost $60,000 when the Martin government shut it down.
Duceppe, caught off guard, said that he supported a program for regional festivals, but not a sponsorship program that funnels money through advertising firms.
Nevertheless, a headline suggested Duceppe wanted a new sponsorship program.
In the past, Duceppe has always been very discreet about his strategic goals. This time, he has admitted that his goal is to get more than 50 per cent of the popular vote, something that no sovereignist leader has ever done. (In 2004, the Bloc got 49 per cent and took 54 of the province's 75 ridings.)
But this may be in conflict with his other goal, of breaking through in the multicultural Liberal ridings in Montreal.
It may be impossible to do both; the energy he is spending in Montreal is not being directed to pumping up the turnout in party strongholds like Saguenay or Rivière-du-Loup. And recent polls show that the Conservatives have gained strength in Quebec, at the expense of the Bloc whose support has slipped to about 43 per cent.
But it's virtually the only gamble he is taking in this so-far smooth and risk-free campaign.

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