QUEBEC — Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair refused to apologize yesterday for referring to Asians as having "slanted eyes," even as he faced criticism from Asian-Canadian and other groups that the comments were offensive.
The Chinese Canadian National Council said Mr. Boisclair should withdraw his words, which it said were disrespectful and traded on caricatures. And a Montreal civil-rights group said the PQ Leader should apologize because the remarks betrayed "racial bias."
"It's a character issue," said Victor Wong, executive director of the council, which has members in Quebec. "You're aspiring to be premier, and aspiring to be premier of all of us. To refer to Asian students as having slanting eyes is offensive."
Mr. Boisclair said during a campaign speech to students on Wednesday that they would face growing competition from emerging powerhouses like India and China. He said he was struck by the large number of Asian students while he was completing his one-year master's degree at Harvard University in Boston.
Mr. Boisclair studied at the John F. Kennedy School of Government before running for the PQ leadership in 2005.
"I was surprised to see that on campus, about a third of the undergraduate students had slanted eyes," he said.
"They're not going to work in sweatshops. They're people who will later work as engineers, managers, and will create wealth. They're people who will innovate in their countries. There is ferocious competition in the world today."
The PQ has spent years trying to build bridges with ethnic minorities, who have traditionally backed the Liberal Party, and Mr. Boisclair has tried to make inclusiveness and tolerance one of his selling points since his election as PQ leader in 2005.
Yesterday, faced with repeated questions from reporters, Mr. Boisclair said he stood by his remarks and didn't understand why a fuss was being made, since he has used the "slanted eyes" phrase repeatedly in stump speeches in the past.
"There's no way I will apologize," he told reporters during a campaign stop in Quebec City. He said he used the expression because "these people are a source of amazement for me. I've been to Japan; they are my friends, my colleagues. No way I will apologize."
Asked why he was referring to the Japanese, when he had talked about Chinese students the day before, Mr. Boisclair said he meant students from various Asian countries.
Mr. Boisclair was speaking French to a classroom of university students when he referred to "yeux bridés," which translates as slanted or slanting eyes. He suggested yesterday the term might have a more negative connotation in English than in French.
"I'm doing politics, not linguistics," he said, adding that he believes "Quebeckers are 100 per cent behind me" on the issue. Even Mr. Boisclair's rivals said they think he did not intend any malice.
"He might have used a better choice of words, but I know Mr. Boisclair enough to know his intention was not to be disrespectful," Liberal Leader Jean Charest said.
The issue has become a distraction for Mr. Boisclair. While the French media have reported the comments, most of the questions yesterday came from English-language reporters.
Fo Niemi of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, a Montreal civil-rights group, said he was surprised to hear the remarks come from Mr. Boisclair, whom he considered a socially progressive leader from a new generation of Quebec sovereigntists.
Mr. Niemi said he called the PQ yesterday to simply alert them to what he considered the inappropriateness of Mr. Boisclair's remarks. But then he said the party's director of communications for the election campaign, Shirley Bishop, aggressively told him over the phone that she saw nothing wrong with the comment and blamed "people like you" for making racism an issue.
That's when Mr. Niemi said he decided to issue a news release condemning Mr. Boisclair's comments.
"It's a very derogatory remark and very racially offensive," Mr. Niemi said in an interview, adding that the comments were ill considered at a time when Quebec needs to increase ties with the economies of Asia and India.