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Race-hate ads add a nasty new flavour to Canada poll

A series of attack television advertisements from the west Canada based Reform Party, claiming that Quebec-born political leaders such as the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, cannot be trusted to deal with national unity, has injected a nasty note of ethnic prejudice into Canada's election campaign.

The television commercials, which feature unflattering photographs of Mr Chretien, the Conservative Party Leader Jean Charest, the Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and the Quebec Premier, Lucien Bouchard, began running on public and private networks on the weekend.

The tracking poll by Reuters-Zogby on Sunday showed support for Reform had grown from 16.9 to 19.3 per cent.

The attempt to blame prominent Quebec-based politicians for Canada's problems of national unity because of their Frenchness marks the first time in a modern federal election campaign that any party has explicitly targeted Quebeckers because of their ethnicity or their language.

The airing of the advertisements prompted a barrage of criticism of the Reform Party Leader, Preston Manning, for stirring up English-French tension to shore up his party's support in western Canada and to attempt to snag rural voters in Ontario, the province which delivers one-third of the seats to the Canadian parliament and which is seen as a stronghold for Mr Chretien and the Liberal Party.

The new, frontal attack on Quebeckers appears to be a response to the recent surge in support for Mr Charest at the expense of Bloc Quebecois, the branch of the Quebec separatist movement which runs candidates in federal elections.

Mr Manning is counting on his Reform Party replacing the Bloc as the official opposition in parliament, a move that could be the stepping stone to power in the next election, four years away.

The Conservative revival, propelled by Mr Charest's performance, is threatening the Manning scenario on two counts. If the federalist Conservatives are seen to be doing well in Quebec, this is likely t o have an echo in English- speaking Canada, especially in Ontario. Secondly, if the Bloc Quebecois appears to be fading, it is harder to argue that a tough anti-Quebec party, such as Reform, is needed to counteract it.

There are already some indications that the advertisements could backfire, by stressing the extremist image of the Reform Party, which it has been trying to play down.

One of Mr Charest's Conservative candidates in Ontario, Dennis Timbrell (who was formerly a senior minister in the Ontario provincial government), took up that theme on Sunday.

"If anybody hates Quebec, there's a party for them. It's called Reform. If they hate the French, there's a party for them. If you hate anybody, go to Reform because they're the party of hate."

Mr Charest attempted to inject some humour into the situation by telling audiences in various communities in Ontario that the Conservative Party did not require people to produce their birth certificates to attend his rallies.

"The suggestion that where you are born should determine whether you should be prime minister of the country is , to say the least, offensive," Mr Charest added. It's obvious Mr Manning's campaign has reached a new low."

The leader of the Reform Party has now said the commercials may have been misinterpreted and that he has nothing against Quebeckers, only that they have dominated the debate about national unity for too long.

The Reform Party has virtually no support in Quebec and is only fielding candidates in 5 of the 75 Quebec ridings. Nevertheless, Mr Manning claims that his proposal to reduce the scope of the national government and to decentralise most of its functions to the various provincial governments, including the Quebec government, is a viable strategy for national unity.

The Prime Minister is also attempting to confront Mr Manning directly on the issue and will be spending the next two days in Alberta and British Columbia, where the Reform Party has most support.