A week ago Saturday, Kamal Lutfi was a relatively unknown CAQ candidate in the Laval riding of Chomedey, looking forward to doing battle with PQ, Liberal and Quebec Solidaire competitors in the upcoming Quebec election. Then twitter happened.

Much has been written about his now infamous tweets, in which he referred to sovereigntists as racists. By the next morning, CAQ leader Francois Legault had dismissed him as a candidate, and stated “Kamal G. Lutfi’s words are downright contrary to the values and political orientations of Coalition Avenir Quebec… We cannot tolerate a candidate saying opponents are racist.”

After a brief absence from twitter, Lutfi returned with a vengeance, castigating Legault for his summary dismissal, and upbraiding the fledgling party for harbouring sovereigntist intentions and being a confused, dysfunctional mess.

On the eve of a looming election call, rabble reached out to Lutfi and spent an hour speaking with him about everything from his notorious tweets to his political future, and his position on free education (He’s for it).

When reached Monday, the day after this interview, he was in a meeting with his former CAQ official agent and legal advisor, and all but confirmed his intention to run as an independent candidate.

Are sovereigntists racist?

On that fateful Saturday evening, Lutfi was in his garage working on his car, without his glasses. He probably should have left his cell phone inside as well.

A twitter neophyte, Lutfi had only been using the site for about two weeks to promote his candidacy, and that of his party. Another twitter user sent him a link to a video of PQ MNA Bernard Drainville explaining that a sovereign Quebec would have no use for the Canadian Army, the RCMP, or multiculturalism. Lutfi, a Lebanese immigrant who has lived in Quebec for thirty-seven years, “freaked out”.

“So you’ve used people like us, built this society on our backs, but when you separate you’ll throw us all out? Close companies hiring immigrants?” is how Lutfi described his thinking.

At first, Lutfi insisted that he never meant to say all sovereigntists were racist, but was referring only to his supervisor at Mouvement Desjardins, a Quebec credit union. According to Lutfi, his former boss did not allow him to speak Arabic in the office, told him “watch out, you’re a minority here” in a staff meeting and once publicly described himself by saying, “I’m a nationalist, a separatist and a racist”.

But, as our conversation continued, Lutfi kept providing examples of racism amongst sovereigntists and in various Quebec institutions, as if backing up the point he was studiously not making, that sovereigntists are more racist than the rest of us. When I pushed him on this apparent contradiction, he came around to saying that he did not think sovereigntists were racist as people, but that the project of sovereignty is.

“I was upset about this idea of abolishing multiculturalism. To me it shows that the whole project of separation becomes a racist project against all other cultures. If you’re sovereigntist and racist, and you don’t bother me, fine. But what’s important is that you’re going to impose a country and then what, kick us out? You’re going to abolish multiculturalism, that’s a threat to me. I put 37 years of my life in this province, I’m not going anywhere.”

Anatomy of a twitter scandal

After exchanging a flurry of tweets with a pro-sovereignty account holder, in which he asserted that some sovereigntists were indifferent and hateful towards other cultures, he left the house. He returned a few hours later to see that his tweets had provoked a twitterstorm of epic proportions.

At nine o’clock that night he got a call from Brigitte Legault, the Director General of the CAQ, who told him to stay off the internet, and that they would talk the next day.

“I was scared. I didn’t want to go home. I even slept in my car that night. I was paranoid, afraid someone might do something to me. I come from Lebanon, that’s how it works there”.

The next morning Ms. Legault called back, to inform him that his relationship with the CAQ was being terminated. “She told me they wanted to do it politely, part in a civilized way. She asked me to delete my tweets and promised the party would return all of my money”.

Shortly after that conversation, Francois Legault took to twitter to announce that Lutfi had been dismissed. According to Lutfi, Legault finally called him directly a little after noon.

“I told him I was sorry, that this was not what I intended. That I had only been talking about one case [his supervisor at Desjardins]. I also said I thought he had made mistakes on twitter too, like fighting in a low-class way with Drainville, and using insults.”

According to Lutfi, Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, sympathized and agreed there were racists in the sovereigntist movement. “Effectivement, quand j’étais au PQ, il y avait des séparatistes racistes” he quotes Legault as saying.

“I was very upset, very scared. It was all over the news, the first item on every channel. They said they wanted to do this in a civilized way, but then they turned around and threw me to the wolves. Rebello [an MNA who defected from the PQ to the CAQ] said he was still a sovereigntist, and the party backed him up. Why back up Rebello, but not me? [Legault] made his own campaign on my back.”

At first Lutfi says he tried to stay quiet, and avoid arguments. But by Monday his frustration with the CAQ and Legault had reached a tipping point, and he posted Legault’s statement about racists in the PQ on his Facebook page.

Lutfi proceeded to go on a media offensive, blowing up his bridges to the CAQ as he tried to defend his reputation and explain his comments. He appeared on seven different TV shows that day alone, and did countless other interviews with print and radio journalists. “The Gazette and CJAD, they were the worst. They should be on my side, but they didn’t even give me a chance to talk”.

“Legault says no to sovereignty, but if you look at the people behind him as he says it, they’re all blinking. They’re all lying. I felt betrayed. They were using me to sell themselves as a multicultural party, but they wouldn’t even stand up for multiculturalism. I’m saying the truth, and obviously that’s what they don’t like, that’s why they reacted.”

On the CAQ, and how a good idea went bad

Watching twitter, there seemed to be enough blame to go around, with both Lutfi and the CAQ taking heavy fire. Dan Bigras, a well-known Quebecois musician, made a popular point when he noted that although he disagreed with Lutfi, he felt the CAQ had mishandled the situation.

When I asked Lutfi if he felt mistreated by the CAQ, the floodgates opened. “I was poorly treated even before this. The party wrote off my riding, gave me zero support, not even business cards. The CAQ is a total disaster, they’re not organized at all. The Director General called me a shoe salesman. They kicked me out, but still stole many of my ideas for signs, messages. I’m a team player, but I was ignored and excluded from the beginning.”

“Legault, in my opinion, is putting all of his eggs in one basket around Quebec City. They will drop five points because of this [kicking him out], but they would have lost anyway.”

I come back to his earlier point, and ask him if he thinks Legault is still a sovereigntist.

“I’m definitely sure Legault is a sovereigntist. He was pushing the most for it, when they [the PQ] were in power. I’m disappointed with the whole party. [Legault] didn’t support me, he couldn’t even answer my questions. I have lost trust in him, his party and the ideas that they’re promoting”.

On his plans for the future

I ask Lutfi if he would consider running for another party. He chuckles, “well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?”

“By my nature, I’m an agent of change, always have been. If I get people to talk a bit more, open the door for dialogue, I’m happy.  I will do something, I’m not sure on what level, but I will be part of the race. I’m not giving up”.

“I promised people I would give them a show during this campaign, and I will. It’s going to be raw, funny and real. I’m going to show you how you can go into politics with no money! My vision is that more people should run independently, to go against these parties with their empty promises. We can divide the votes, and none of them will be able to win. Then we, the people, will form a government”.

Lutfi went on to outline, in great detail, a system where political parties would be abolished, all MNAs would be independent, and decisions would be made absent the gamesmanship of a perpetual campaign.

He then started talking about how we “need to get people off welfare. In Quebec there is a mentality of taking advantage of the system, and then fighting for a country”.

That I expected from a CAQ candidate. What came next, I did not.

The part where the interview got weird. Fast.

Lutfi then moved seamlessly from dissing welfare bums to lauding Iceland. He tells me to look up what happened there, with which I am familiar. I imagine he must mean another country, so I ask, somewhat incredulously, “Iceland?”

“In Iceland there was a silent revolution in which all the banks were nationalized, the national debt divided amongst all the citizens, and they deliberately defaulted on their external debt. The population forced the government to resign, and the people rewrote the constitution”.

I’m still having trouble grasping what I’m hearing from a man who was running for the most right wing party in Quebec up until a week ago. “So, if you approve of what happened in Iceland, do you think that our government should nationalize the banks?”

“Yes”. I try to keep my spluttering inaudible. “In a way I think it would be positive, to nationalize the banks. Banks make huge profits, obscene profits, taking advantage of every law and loophole to make money. Too much money. I approve of making money, but it’s too much. Maybe they need to pay more taxes”.

So I point out that taxes on corporations and high income earners have been slashed in recent years by both the federal and provincial government. I ask if he thinks we should return them to their previous levels. He agrees.

“Charest has given over a billion dollars to corporations, to support terrible projects like Plan Nord and re-opening the asbestos mine. Why give this money away? We give so much money to foreign corporations who open here, but then they move away and we lose our investment. I would prefer to see 400 million injected into Quebec businesses. We should keep the money here and invest in our entrepreneurs.”

He then went on to lament how unions are killing our productivity, something more in line with the views of his former party.

On free education, and why he supports the students

I ask him about the student strike. I had read somewhere that he is vociferously opposed to the student cause, so I was expecting a denunciation of the strike. I’m wrong again.

He starts by telling me what a hard time he had making it through university as an immigrant, and working at McDonalds. He says he was able to get a degree, but he would have done a Masters, maybe a PhD, if money issues had not forced him into the workforce. He proposes two free universities, one English, one French, with the rest charging tuition at the current rate.

I tell him that IRIS estimates free education in Quebec would cost around $350 million a year. He’s familiar with the figure, and agrees, “that’s peanuts!”. I point out that many studies have shown education returns ten dollars on every dollar invested, through higher tax revenue from university graduates. He agrees that education is how we build a strong, globally competitive, knowledge based economy. So instead of two free universities, why not make them all free?

“I agree one hundred percent with free tuition. In my heart, I am with them [the students]. The idea of two free universities was my compromise, that I proposed to the CAQ. In fact, the student issue was the first question that made me split with the CAQ. I told them I wanted free education, they told me to look at their platform. I believe everyone should go to university just to be well educated, even if they don’t need it for work. In Lebanon, where I’m from, university is free and everyone goes. Lots of engineers, doctors, the highest level of education in the world.”

He tells me he could have solved the student strike in no time flat. I’m all ears.

“Charest took too long to react. The first week of the strike, he should have announced a freeze for a year, and given that time to study the issue, and return with a proposal. Instead he left the students on the street, getting hurt, getting criminal records. I was in student riots in Lebanon, I understand. We are creating debt for them. Education is the way we give back to our kids, allow them to get good jobs, raise healthy families and have a good life”.

I couldn’t find the article during our interview, but I call him back the next day to clarify a Globe and Mail story where he is quoted as saying “These students shouldn’t be in the street, their parents should be telling them to get back to school.”

He says he was misquoted, and that his point was it was a tragedy that students have been forced onto the streets, and their parents should have been putting pressure on the government to settle.

“I want to meet CLASSE, talk to them. I’m a long term thinker. With free education, imagine how many people would want to come live here. We could choose the immigrants we want. How many doctors are driving taxis, are discriminated against? they need to be part of society”.

As far as my two cents goes – and being an opinion writer, I always have two pennies handy – it was a fascinating conversation. I think Lutfi was wrong to call sovereigntists racists, and I think he’s wrong that sovereignty is necessarily a racist endeavor. People are racist, and I think they would remain that way if they changed their political allegiance on the national question. For that matter, I also disagree with him on unions and welfare.

I know many, many sovereigntists. None are racists, and many support multiculturalism. Despite my poor French, I’ve always been accepted with open arms by my colleagues on the sovereigntist left. But Quebec society, by virtue of its distinct nature and language, does stand apart from what surrounds it. That’s a good thing, and necessary to preserve the language and culture of this province. But it would be naive to suggest that that doesn’t translate into a certain bias against outsiders, especially those whose French is sub par, from a small minority. I think Lutfi was unfortunate enough to have some bad experiences, and has generalized from them to arrive at an unfair portrayal of Quebec society.

All that said, in over an hour on the phone with him, he struck me as a warm, jovial and authentic fellow. His politics are idiosyncratic, and perhaps not entirely consistent, but he has some good ideas. I hope he reads up on unions, questions his assumptions about sovereigntists, and worries more about corporate welfare bums in future, but I think I’d like to have a beer with him, and that’s what politics is all about right?

I kid, but I’ll let him have the last word.

“My message is peace and love. Let’s get together and find solutions.”

Follow me on twitter, for all the latest on the Quebec election and the ongoing student strike: @EthanCoxMTL