The Parti Québécois is trying to bolster a faltering campaign with a new wedge issue on Quebec identity, accusing Ontarians and other Canadians from outside Quebec of trying to steal the provincial election.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois went to a sugar shack and left the main campaign spotlight to three of her candidates Sunday. They held a news conference at PQ headquarters to demand an investigation over an influx of voters – frequently young anglophone university students – who are trying to register for the April 7 vote.
"Will the Quebec election be stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada?" said Bertrand St-Arnaud, the Justice Minister and PQ candidate in Chambly. "The coming week is crucial for democracy."
Tales of stolen votes are part of nationalist lore in Quebec, where sovereigntists remain bitter about the loss of the 1995 referendum by a few thousand votes – famously attributed to "money and some ethnic votes, essentially" by Jacques Parizeau. Separatists say federalists rigged voting by overspending and by churning out new citizens just in time for voting day. Federalists counter that electoral officials sympathetic to Quebec independence rejected thousands of good "No" ballots.
Just a few days ago, Pierre Karl Péladeau, the star PQ candidate and Canadian media baron, said the 1995 referendum was stolen.
Amid poll numbers showing Liberals moving ahead, the PQ is struggling to drag the campaign back to the identity issues that gave the party a surge in popularity over the past year. The first weeks of the campaign were instead occupied with debates over Quebec independence – a topic unpopular with most voters.
Jacques Drouin, the chief electoral officer, blasted back at the PQ, saying no abnormal rise in registrations has occurred. "I found it a bit peculiar a minister would address the chief electoral officer that way," he told Radio-Canada. "We always hold dear the proper registration of voters and a proper electoral process."
The PQ latched on to reports of sporadic problems in the voter registration process. While some voters claimed they were unfairly blocked from voting, one election official resigned complaining of an "irregular" influx of immigrant and English-speaking voters in Montreal.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he is confident the chief electoral officer can sort out legitimate voters. "It's always good news when people want to exercise their right to vote," he said.
Quebec law requires voters to reside in the province on a permanent basis for at least six months. The permanence of residency – particularly for students who may not live in Quebec full time – is open to interpretation and has caused some misunderstanding, according to Denis Dion, a spokesman for the electoral officer.
Voter-registration campaigns are normal on campuses and in immigrant communities which often have low turnout. The PQ's plan to ban religious dress such as turbans and hijabs from the public service has triggered immense interest in the election, according to Tony Karam, manager of the Montreal Arabic radio station 1450 AM. "A lot of our listeners come from places where a vote means nothing, so it's part of our role to tell them to get out and vote," Mr. Karam said.
As for the students, it is unlikely out-of-province English-speakers would be decisive. Most Montreal ridings surrounding the English universities are solid bedrock PQ or Liberal ridings. But one riding where students could make a difference is Saint-François, which includes part of Sherbrooke and the campus of Bishop's University. Forty-one per cent of Bishop's 2,756 students are from outside Quebec, and that riding went from the Liberals to the PQ in 2012 by a margin of 110 votes.
Mathieu Vandal, an electoral list supervisor in the PQ riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques resigned Friday, saying he could not vouch for the registration process. He told Le Devoir he was taken aback that in his 75-per-cent francophone riding, most of the new registrations were from non-francophones.
Voter Mark Grenon was before Mr. Vandal for a simple address change Friday. Mr. Grenon, an English teacher who has lived in Quebec for 10 years, had his case sent for further scrutiny despite having a Quebec heath card, driver's permit and tax bill for his Montreal condo. He said Mr. Vandal became suspicious because his French is imperfect and his Chilean-born wife has yet to get her Canadian citizenship.
"He was just very edgy," Mr. Grenon said. "Sometimes it feels like if you were born here and French is your first language, you're worth more as a citizen. I heard [another election official] tell the francophone in line of front of me he was a 'good citizen.' He sure as hell didn't tell me I'm a good citizen."
Electoral officials came to Mr. Grenon's house on Sunday and granted him permission to vote.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated the losing side in the 1995 referendum. It also said election official Mathieu Vandal described a voter as a "good citizen." It was, in fact, a second election official. This online version has been corrected.