The Israeli bombing of Lebanon has hit Quebec especially hard, since Montreal is home to the largest Lebanese community in Canada. In 1996, it counted more than 76,000 people of Lebanese descent.
Quebec has always had a thriving Lebanese minority. The earlier Lebanese immigrants, in the mid-19th century, were Christians fleeing hostility from their Muslim compatriots. During the war in Lebanon in the 1980s, Canada accepted about 15,000 Lebanese refugees a year, 75 per cent of whom settled in Quebec (the main reason being they were French-speaking).
It's a largely successful community -- somewhat younger and more educated than the average population, and over-represented in engineering, mathematics and the sciences, not to mention playwrights such as Wajdi Mouawad.
By and large, the tight-knit community kept some of the values of the old country. It has relatively few single mothers, and couples tend to marry and stay together and often live with members of the extended family. It's rare to find a person over 65 who lives by herself. There was, obviously, much intermarriage between old-stock francophones and Lebanese immigrants and, today, the community is integrated into Quebec society.
When eight members of Montreal's Al-Akhrass family were killed in an Israeli air strike on their ancestral town of Aytaroun, the shock reverberated throughout Quebec. Newspapers and radio hot lines were flooded with outraged reactions, most of which aggressively pointed to Israel as the culprit.
In the turmoil of a tragedy that Quebeckers took almost personally, few paused to realize that the major reason for the tragic deaths of innocent civilians such as the Al- Akhrasses is the fact that Hezbollah, like all terrorist organizations, uses civilians as human shields and hides its bases and weapons in populated areas. As The Globe and Mail reported last week, quoting Israeli sources, Aytaroun was likely hit because the border town was used as a launching pad for missiles fired at Israel.
But in Quebec, generally speaking, Israel has a bad image because it's seen as a military superpower. Many identify with the Palestinians because they are viewed as underdogs seeking their own country.
Not everyone in Montreal's Lebanese community would subscribe to this judgment, though. According to Karim Lebnam, who wrote a history thesis on the religious orientations of the Lebanese, the overwhelming majority of Montreal's Lebanese are Christian -- so there's no love lost for Hezbollah, the Islamic "party of God." But, of course, when bombs are raining on a country where one has relatives and friends, political and religious beliefs take second place to fear, anxiety and anger.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's firm stand in favour of Israel didn't make him many friends in the Lebanese community. Chances are, come the next election, the Conservatives will pay a price within the various Arab communities.
But, by then, especially if the election takes place late in 2007, most Quebeckers will have forgotten the events in Lebanon. The emotions that are now running so high will have subsided.
In any case, it's domestic policies that make or break governments. Mr. Harper's stand on the Middle East and Afghanistan will reinforce his image as a pro-American, pro-war leader -- an orientation that many Quebeckers abhor. On the other hand, these same stands will also reinforce his image as a firm leader, a man of principle who opts for what he believes is right and who is ready to bear the cost of his decisions -- and this is a characteristic that most Quebeckers appreciate.
It's clear Mr. Harper wasn't looking for votes when he voiced his support for Israel. But the end result, electorally speaking, will be that the Conservatives will make inroads into Montreal's 100,000-strong Jewish community, which, until now, has been one of the bedrocks of the Liberal Party.