Montreal’s minorities fret over Quebec elections

MONTREAL—Business is good for Shahidul Islam, who runs a halal supermarket near the bustling center of Quebec’s largest city. But these days his shoppers are voicing worries about the potential outcome of Monday’s provincial election.

“A lot of people who come here say, maybe it’s better if I go to Ontario,” Mr. Islam said. “We hear about it every day from our customers.”

A contentious political campaign is raising the specter of a push for Quebec secession, unsettling minorities that don’t speak French and exacerbating an economic slowdown in Canada’s second-most populous province.

Nowhere are those concerns more visible than in Montreal, Quebec’s economic engine and home to most of its English speakers and ethnic minorities. More and more people in those groups are considering whether it is time to join the decadeslong exodus of non-Francophones from the province.

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The separatist Parti Québécois currently heads a minority government. If the party secures a majority in Monday’s vote, it would likely call for a referendum on Quebec secession, like the ones previous PQ governments held in 1980 and 1995. That prospect unsettles many businesses and residents of Quebec and throughout Canada, which could be thrown into a constitutional crisis by a vote for separation.

Many minorities here find a more explicit pledge from the PQ even more disconcerting. It wants to enact a so-called Secular Charter that would ban public-sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols like turbans or yarmulkes. The government says its goal is to promote a secular society and that the proposed law is comparable to one passed in France, but minority groups say it discriminates against them.

“I’m a native Montrealer,” said Mandy Wolfe, who co-owns two restaurants called Mandy’s Salads. “I’m certainly not planning on going anywhere, unless the PQ gets a majority and the charter is passed. Then I’d rethink things.”

Some have rethought things already. In the first nine months of 2013, as the debate over religious symbols intensified, 28,439 people moved from Quebec to other provinces, according to Statistics Canada, the most in any equivalent period since 2000. Analysts are divided on how much the exodus has to do with a booming oil-based economy in places like Calgary and Edmonton or with the political and economic situation in Quebec.

Once Canada’s business and cultural capital, Montreal has posted the lowest GDP growth rate over the last 15 years among major Canadian cities — 37% compared with an of average 59%, according to a February report by the Boston Consulting Group. It has the highest unemployment rate and the slowest population growth rate compared to the other cities, according to the study, and relies much more heavily on one revenue tool—property taxes—than they do.

The city’s basic infrastructure has suffered. “The thing that makes me most sad when I travel and then come back to Montreal is the infrastructure,” Jacques Ménard, a lifelong Montreal resident and the president of the Bank of Montreal Financial Group, said. “When you travel through our city and through our road system, one thinks you’re in Beirut sometimes, that maybe we had a bomb or something like that.”

Montreal’s real-estate market is also showing the strain. Sotheby’s Canada wrote in a note to clients in March that “political uncertainty” has dampened the confidence of buyers. “The outcome of the April election will be the defining influence on the health of the city’s economy and real-estate market this year and into 2015,” the company said.

The earlier referendums fell short of a majority, but the push for independence scared off several big companies from Montreal. When Sun Life Financial Inc. moved its head office to Toronto in 1978, it set off a long migration that has dampened the city’s growth ever since.

In recent days, as polls showed support waning for the Parti Québécois, party leader and Premier Pauline Marois has backed away from talk of a referendum, emphasizing instead the secular charter, which is popular among the PQ’s staunchest Francophone supporters.

Her efforts to calm fears about the charter have been compromised by a string of blunders by PQ candidates. At a campaign stop last weekend, Ms. Marois appeared with 89-year-old Janette Bertrand, a well-known Quebec actress, as Ms. Bertrand expressed fears that Muslim fundamentalists would take over her apartment building’s swimming pool. Ms. Marois declined through a spokesman to be interviewed.

Many also say their language rights are under siege, as the Office Québécois de la Langue Française, a government entity charged with enforcing the province’s policy of bilingual signage, has stepped up its enforcement. The office—referred to locally as the “language police”—warned one Italian restaurant in February that it had broken the law by including the word pasta on its menu instead of the French word, pâte.

Ms. Wolfe, 36, recently was told by officials of the Office de la Langue Française to remove a decorative vintage sign in one of her restaurants because it had English text only and violated signage laws. Ms. Wolfe says the language inspectors keep coming back to her restaurant every four months.

“It is a feeling of being repeatedly visited, and it isn’t a welcome feeling,” Ms. Wolfe said.