par STEVEN CHASE
OTTAWA -- Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is calling for an emergency debate on the direction Canada's foreign policy is taking - including whether Ottawa should pull its troops from Afghanistan.
He said there's a growing feeling among Quebeckers that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is moving in lockstep with U.S. President George W. Bush on foreign policy, from Israel to Afghanistan.
"I think they have more and more the impression that Harper is taking the same alignment that Bush is taking, and they are firmly against that," Mr. Duceppe said in an interview as the death toll of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan reached 32.
The Bloc says the minority Conservative government's foreign-policy actions this summer - such as strongly supporting Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon - have broken with Canadian tradition.
In a letter notifying Commons Speaker Peter Milliken of the debate request, Bloc House Leader Michel Gauthier says the Tories have strayed from Canada's historical position "of mediation and balance" and from the "major values of the Québécois and Canadian populations, which are, I am convinced by it, resolutely peaceful."
Mr. Duceppe said Quebeckers are disturbed by how the Tories "blindly" backed Israel, and this is translating into fear about where the increasingly violent Afghan mission is heading.
The Bloc Leader wants an emergency debate in mid-September before Mr. Harper lays out Canada's foreign policy in a maiden speech at the United Nations on Sept. 20 - a request that doesn't leave much time, because the House of Commons only resumes sitting Sept. 18.
He's the second opposition party leader to raise concerns about the combat. NDP Leader Jack Layton has called for Canada to pull troops from Afghanistan and invite the Taliban to peace talks.
So far the name of only one Quebec-based soldier who has died in the Afghan conflict has been released: Corporal Jason Patrick Warren, who was buried in August.
Mr. Duceppe warned that Quebeckers will oppose plans to make the Quebec-based 22nd Regiment - also known as the Vandoos - the main Canadian force in Afghanistan next year unless there's a broader discussion about the direction the mission is taking.
"If we don't have an open debate on that, they'll be against [it] - I am sure of that - because they don't have confidence in the foreign policy developed by the Tories and Stephen Harper."
Analysts say Quebec reaction to the mounting Canadian deaths in Afghanistan could end up denying Mr. Harper's Conservatives the majority government they seek in the next federal election, expected as soon as the spring of 2007.
The 125-seat Tory caucus is still 30 seats short of a majority in the House of Commons, and the Conservatives had been counting on enlarging support in Quebec as the main route to full control of Parliament. But polls show they've made no progress since the January federal election.
Allan Gregg, pollster and chairman of the Strategic Counsel, says the deployment of the Valcartier-based Vandoos as the main Canadian force in Afghanistan next year could pose a real threat to Tory fortunes in Quebec.
"There is no question that having the Vandoos go later - if not ever - is better than them going earlier and for sure," Mr. Gregg said. "When the body bags start coming [back] with the Fleur-de-lis on them, this is going to have that much more poignancy for Quebeckers."
Afghanistan has the potential to drive a wedge between Quebec voters and the right-wing Tories if increasing numbers of Quebec-based soldiers die there, he said.
"Quebeckers are far and away the least militaristic, far and away the most likely to say the price we're paying right now is too high - and also far and away the most socially progressive and . . . the most anti-American," Mr. Gregg said.
Bloc wants urgent debate on foreign file
Quebeckers fear PM is following U.S. lead on Afghanistan and Israel, Duceppe says