MONTREAL - What should have been an historic moment in Quebec — the election of its first woman premier — was tainted Tuesday night as an angry year of discontent reached its nadir.
"What's going on?" an obviously concerned Pauline Marois said to one of her provincial police bodyguards as he plucked her by the elbow from her moment of triumph and whisked her from the stage at her victory rally in a bubble of burly plainclothes cops.
The premier-elect cast searching glances over her shoulder as she was moved quickly away, with a climate of confusion sweeping over the room.
It was only when audience members left that they learned what had happened: the acrimony of debate in the province in the last few years had been ratcheted up another chilling notch and charged into their midst.
Nothing serious had happened, PQ spokesmen had told the rally. A noisemaker had been set off. Nothing serious. Then the tone changed. It became more urgent that people leave the room. They were urged to do so calmly.
Even Marois returned to tell people to go out, speaking in an almost maternal fashion, as she gathered her family and supporters on stage. She even finished her speech.
"This is an example of a woman head of state," she said with a smile. "Voila."
But the moment was short-lived and as party faithful filed out, they were greeted with a sight familiar on the streets of Montreal during months of student protests — lines of stern-faced police officers.
But this time there was no street demonstration. The police went onto the stage where the new premier-elect had been beaming moments before and strung orange tape across it. The PQ's victory podium was now a crime scene.
Police confirmed later that two people had been shot — one fatally — and a third had been treated in hospital for shock. Instead of rushing into the main hall, the attacker then paused to start a fire. A door to the venue erupted after being doused with accelerant, just metres from where Marois spoke.
A heavy, acrid smell of smoke hung in the room as police finally moved stragglers out so forensic technicians could get to work.
Police spoke to reporters early Wednesday outside the venue where Marois spoke to her supporters, and while they did not reveal the suspect’s name, they said he is 62 years old.
Lieut. Guy Lapointe of the Quebec Provincial Police said investigators have so far been unable to establish whether Marois was a possible target, but because the possibility exists, the provincial force is ”taking change of the investigation.”
Lapointe said two weapons were seized at the scene, adding that the life of the second shooting victim taken to hospital in critical condition was no longer in danger.
Montreal police Cmdr. Ian Lafreniere said police continue to scour the area for any additional incendiary devices. He added that four or five families in the vicinity had been evacuated for safety reasons. He said detectives have met with about 15 witnesses so far as the investigation continues.
Lapointe would not comment on increased security around Marois but added that he doesn’t believe the premier-elect is in any danger.
"We were happy and cheering and all of a sudden Madame Marois was being taken off stage," said one woman, who identified herself as Marie-Elaine.
"The atmosphere inside was happy, positive. We had no idea what had happened. We just wanted her to finish her speech."
Later in the evening, as the events sunk in, PQ member Pascal Berube tweeted that he was having trouble coming to grips with what had happened.
"Despite the fatigue, I can't sleep," he wrote. "Helplessness and dismay at a time that should be so gratifying for my party."
In a statement issued early Wednesday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, he said: "We are disturbed by this violence and our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones."
Federal opposition leaders also expressed dismay over the tragic attack. Liberal Leader Bob Rae tweeted his condolences to the victims early Wednesday while NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said his party is in shock.
Ironically, Marois, who reportedly reads from a book of Zen proverbs to stay calm, had appealed for unity with the anglophone community moments before the gunman burst in.
Anglophones had been more leery of a PQ win this time than in recent years because Marois had promised to toughen language laws and limit access to English junior colleges by francophones and allophones.
Such promises had created consternation among Anglos, especially in the business community. Some had mused about leaving Quebec if Marois won.
But Marois got applause Tuesday night from her troops when she vowed that English rights would be protected.
"I want us to shape together our common future," the new leader of the minority government told the crowd. She delivered the message in English, a rare choice for a PQ leader addressing a partisan audience.
There appeared to be some linguistic link to the attack. When police took the suspected shooter away, the ranting man declared, "The English are waking up."
The election itself sprang from a climate of instability. Premier Jean Charest had called the election a month earlier, declaring it would be a chance for Quebecers to say what kind of province they wanted to live in.
A place known for its joie de vivre internationally had been embroiled in bitter debate for several years, with identity politics spurring much of the rancor after questions arose about the reasonable accommodation of immigrants in 2007.
Passions were further stirred by a vocal fight against tuition fee increases by Quebec's students this year with some demonstrations turning into riots that grabbed international headlines.
A disturbing aspect of those protests was the suggestion of bodily harm to public figures.
Chants during student demonstrations called for Charest's body to be dumped in a car trunk like Pierre Laporte, the Quebec labour minister who was strangled by Front de liberation du Quebec terrorists in 1970.
Even student leaders got threats, to the extent that one cited it as a reason for quitting as a spokesman for the movement.
That student protester is among many now appealing for calm and togetherness.
"Partisanship should be replaced by contemplation," urged Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois on Twitter after Tuesday's events. "Peace to the families of the victims and the people who were there."
Marois' party was accused during the election of fanning the flames with plans to make Quebec more secular, including banning such religious symbols as the hijab from the public service, and more French with tougher language laws.
As her party stalled at 54 of the 125 seats in Quebec's legislature and only pulled in a slim percentage of the popular vote, one prominent member acknowledged the PQ would have to reach out.
"She's a pragmatic person," said Bernard Drainville, a key member of the PQ caucus. "She's a woman of consensus."
Drainville allowed there would have to be compromise, even though the PQ will defend Quebec's interests.
But the temptation to use the incident for political gain may be irresistible for some. One Quebec entertainment personality used the incident to urge the Harper Tories to back down from their ideology on gun control. A long gun was among the weapons seized by police Tuesday.
The fight over the federal long-gun registry will certainly be among the numerous contentious issues pitting the federal Tories against the new PQ government. If so, the dispute will be more personal than ever for the Quebec government.
Hours later, the premier-elect decried the election night violence in a statement, saying her thoughts are with the victims.
"All Quebecers are in mourning today in the face of this act of gratuitous violence," Marois said.
"Never will a society like ours let violence dictate its collective choices. It's by the democratic voice that we must express ourselves."
-With files from Sidhartha Banerjee
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