At a bowling alley in Montreal’s east end on a weekday afternoon, Réal Desrochers is playing in his weekly league and also considering his choices in next week’s federal election.
Desrochers had been planning to vote Liberal, but a key moment in last Thursday’s English-language leaders’ debate galvanized identity sentiments in Quebec and spurred him to change his mind and choose the Bloc Québécois led by Yves-François Blanchet.
“For me, it’s because the Bloc will balance the situation in Ottawa,” Desrochers said. “I know he won’t form a government, but he will defend Quebec [in Parliament].”
Desrochers called the moment “a direct attack on Quebec, and I don’t like it.”
Last Thursday, at the beginning of the English leaders’ debate, moderator Shachi Kurl asked Blanchet why he supported bills 21 and 96 — respectively, Quebec’s secularism law and its proposed new law to protect the French language.
“You denied that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones,” asked Kurl.
“Quebec is recognized as a distinct society, but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”
Blanchet shot back, saying, “The question seems to imply the answer you want.”
“Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec,” he said.
WATCH | Quebec premier criticizes debate question on secularism law:
The exchange had the effect of reviving an old wound, leaving Quebecers feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the rest of Canada, according to several experts interviewed by CBC.
It created a situation in which a debate that is typically almost ignored in Quebec may have changed the game for the federal election on the ground.
A bounce for the Bloc
The Bloc Québécois has risen from its slump in the polls back to a level of popularity similar to what it enjoyed during the 2019 election, in which it experienced a dramatic comeback, winning 32 seats after being reduced to 10 in the previous election.
According to a Léger poll published earlier this week, the party went from 27 per cent to 30 per cent of voter support in the province after the English debate.
“It ignited Quebec’s identity sentiments,” said Guy Lachapelle, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
“Quebecers are sick of Quebec-bashing in general.… I think there is a misunderstanding of the major issues and debates in Quebec.”
WATCH | Quebec columnists explain why the English debate angered some Quebecers:
Lachapelle doubts the increase in Bloc support will make a huge difference in which party ends up forming a government, though it minimizes the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ already slim chances of forming a majority and reduces the NDP’s chances of making gains in the province to almost nil.
For Christian Bourque, executive vice-president at Léger, though, that small bounce — accompanied by the Liberals surpassing the Conservatives in the polls this week despite an endorsement of Erin O’Toole by Premier François Legault — could lead to surprises Monday night.
“We’re all in these sort of dominoes because the race is so tight,” Bourque said.
There are about 15 three-way races between the Bloc, Liberals and Conservatives, he said.
“Since 2011, Quebec is, around Canada, probably the region where we have the most strategic voters, who will change alliance depending on how they feel the race is going,” Bourque said.
Lise Thériault says she has voted for the NDP since the so-called orange wave in 2011, but this time, she went to an advance poll to vote for the Bloc the day after the English debate.
“Telling me, at 70 years old, that I’m a racist because I want to be proud of my French language? Non, ça marche pas ça. It doesn’t work,” Thériault said, switching easily between English and French.
“I was insulted, and Monsieur Blanchet did a good job. I’m behind him 100 per cent.”
Lachapelle says many Quebecers had a similar reaction. He, too, thinks English-speaking Canadians are misinformed about the nuances of Quebec issues.
“We typically have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in other provinces in Quebec, but the reverse is not always true,” he said.
Thériault lives in the Montreal riding of Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, the NDP’s last seat in the province, held by incumbent Alexandre Boulerice for the past 10 years. She said that this year, she was proud to vote for the Bloc’s 21-year-old candidate, Shophika Vaithyanathasarma.
In an interview with CBC this week, Vaithyanathasarma said her own feelings about Bill 21 are complicated.
She supports the bill but is concerned that there is not enough diversity of candidates and politicians who are part of the conversation about it.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m involving myself in politics: none of the people who are talking about the bill are racialized,” Vaithyanathasarma said. “I seriously think we have to listen to the citizens that are concerned.”
Vaithyanathasarma, whose parents immigrated from Sri Lanka, says minorities should not be excluded from the discussion.
“That is one of the biggest mistakes we could make,” she said, smiling.
Mireille Paquet, who holds the research chair on the politics of immigration at Concordia University, told As It Happens the question served Blanchet because “it allowed for Blanchet to speak as if he was representing all of Quebecers, and as if Quebecers were all united around these pieces of legislation.”
Premier Legault’s controversial gambit
The conversation about the debate has overshadowed another significant development in the federal race in the province.
Hours before the English debate, Legault took a public stance against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, saying Quebecers should “beware of three parties: the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Green Party.”
Legault was irked by those parties’ intentions to intervene in health-care matters, which are under provincial jurisdiction, and said, “For the Quebec nation, Mr. O’Toole’s approach is a good one.”
WATCH | Liberals react to Legault’s endorsement of O’Toole:
But Lachapelle, the Concordia professor, says Legault’s endorsement could backfire. Many Quebecers have grumbled about being told who to vote for. The Conservatives have lost some ground in Quebec since the endorsement and are now polling at 18.4 per cent, according to 338Canada founder Philippe Fournier.
The voters of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party are generally split between voting Bloc, Liberal and Conservative at the federal level. Legault’s gamble may have alienated a good portion of them, Lachappelle said.
“Legault risks losing a certain amount of his base, especially if the Conservatives win and don’t deliver [on their promises to Quebec].”
Still, as the dust settles following the debate and its controversy, the polls suggest that Quebecers may end up voting along the same lines as they did in 2019.
“I’m under the impression we’re going to have a similar result as the last election,” he said.
U.N. plane aborts landing as air strike hits Ethiopia’s Tigray
An Ethiopian government air strike on the capital of the northern Tigray region on Friday forced a U.N. aid flight to abort a landing there, the United Nations said.
In neighboring Amhara region, people were fleeing intensified fighting.
Humanitarian sources and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the area, said a university in the regional capital Mekelle was hit by the air strike.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu said a former military base occupied by TPLF fighters was targeted, and he denied the university was hit.
Reuters was not able to independently confirm either account. TPLF-controlled Tigrai TV reported that 11 civilians were wounded in the air strike. It was at least the fourth day this week that Mekelle had been attacked.
The United Nations suspended all flights to Mekelle after a U.N. plane with 11 passengers had to abort landing on Friday.
The flight from Addis Ababa had been cleared by federal authorities but was told by the Mekelle airport control tower to abort the landing, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said
“This is the first time that we had a flight turn around, at least to my knowledge, in the recent past in Ethiopia because of air strikes on the ground,” senior U.N. aid official Gemma Connell, who heads U.N. humanitarian operations in southern and eastern Africa, told reporters in New York on Friday.
The passengers were aid workers traveling to a region where some 7 million people, including 5 million in Tigray, need humanitarian help, she said.
The flight safely returned to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Dujarric said.
‘THE WHOLE CITY IS PANICKING’
The two sides have been fighting for almost a year in a conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million amid a power struggle between the TPLF and the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.
The TPLF dominated the Horn of Africa country’s ruling party for decades before Abiy, who is not a Tigrayan, took office in 2018.
The government has stepped up air strikes on the Tigray capital as fighting has escalated in Amhara, a neighbouring region where the TPLF has seized territory that the government and allied armed Amhara armed groups are trying to recover.
Residents in Dessie, a city in Amhara, told Reuters people were fleeing, a day after a TPLF spokesperson said its forces were within artillery range of the town.
“The whole city is panicking,” a resident said, adding that people who could were leaving. He said he could hear the sound of heavy gunfire on Thursday night and into the morning, and that the bus fare to Addis Ababa, about 385 km (240 miles) to the south, had increased more than six-fold.
There are now more than 500,000 displaced people in the Amhara region, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission told Reuters.
Seid Assefa, a local official working at a coordination centre for displaced people in Dessie, said 250 people had fled there this week from fighting in the Girana area to the north.
“We now have a total of 900 (displaced people) here and we finished our food stocks three days ago.”
Leul Mesfin, medical director of Dessie Hospital, told Reuters two girls and an adult had died this week at his facility of wounds from artillery fire in the town of Wuchale, which both the government and the TPLF have described as the scene of heavy fighting over the past week.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroomAdditional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick and Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by John Stonestreet, Peter Graff, Alex Richardson, William Maclean)
Nigerian state to shut camps for people displaced by insurgency
Nigeria‘s Borno state, the epicentre of an ongoing Islamist insurgency, will shut all camps that are holding thousands of internally displaced persons by the end of the year, its governor said on Friday, citing improved security in the state.
The conflict between the insurgents and Nigerian’s armed forces has also spread to Chad and Cameroon and has left about 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
Borno, which shares a border with Niger, Cameroon and Chad has for more than a decade been the foremost outpost of an insurgency led by Islamist group Boko Haram and later its offshoot Islamic State for West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Speaking after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Borno governor Babgana Zulum said security had improved in the state so much that those living in camps in the state capital Maiduguri could return home.
“So far so good, Borno State government has started well and arrangements have been concluded to ensure the closure of all internally displaced persons camps that are inside Maiduguri metropolis on or before 31st December, 2021,” Zulum said.
But humanitarian groups say most families are unwilling to return to their ancestral lands especially in the northern parts of Borno, which they deem unsafe.
Buhari has in the past months claimed his government was gaining ground on the insurgents. Last week the country’s top general said ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi was dead, without giving details.
Zulum said Borno state authorities would continue to repatriate Nigerian refugees from a camp in Cameroon.
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau died in May and Nigeria says hundreds of fighters loyal to the Islamist group have been surrendering to the government since then.
(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Gregorio)
Exclusive-U.S. hopes to soon relocate Afghan pilots who fled to Tajikistan, official says
The United States hopes to soon relocate around 150 U.S.-trained Afghan Air Force pilots and other personnel detained in Tajikistan for more than two months after they flew there at the end of the Afghan war, a U.S. official said.
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to offer a timeline for the transfer but said the United States wanted to move all of those held at the same time. The details of the U.S. plan have not been previously reported.
Reuters exclusively reported first-person accounts from 143 U.S.-trained Afghan personnel being held at a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting for a U.S. flight out to a third country and eventual U.S. resettlement.
Speaking on smuggled cell phones kept hidden from guards, they say they have had their phones and identity documents confiscated.
There are also 13 Afghan personnel in Dushanbe, enjoying much more relaxed conditions, who told Reuters they are also awaiting a U.S. transfer. They flew into the country separately.
The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots still believed to be in limbo after dozens of advanced military aircraft were flown across the Afghan border to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August during the final moments of the war with the Taliban.
In September, a U.S.-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Two detained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan said their hopes were lifted in recent days after visits by officials from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe.
Although they said they had not yet been given a date for their departure, the pilots said U.S. officials obtained the biometric data needed to complete the process of identifying the Afghans. That was the last step before departure for the Afghan pilots in Uzbekistan.
PREGNANT AFGHAN PILOT
U.S. lawmakers and military veterans who have advocated for the pilots have expressed deep frustration over the time it has taken for President Joe Biden’s administration to evacuate Afghan personnel.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was pressed on the matter in Congress last month, expressing concern at a hearing for the pilots and other personnel.
Reuters had previously reported U.S. difficulties gaining Tajik access to all of the Afghans, which include an Afghan Air Force pilot who is eight months pregnant.
In an interview with Reuters, the 29-year-old pilot had voiced her concerns to Reuters about the risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital.
“We are like prisoners here. Not even like refugees, not even like immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy something for ourselves,” she said.
The pregnant pilot would be included in the relocation from Tajikistan, the U.S. State Department official said.
Even before the Taliban’s takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base.
Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm.
Afghan pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Grant McCool)
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