Quebec’s latest turban controversy

Paul Wells explains what’s really behind the PQ’s Values Charter

<p>PQ leader Pauline Marois responds to questions following a debate with Quebec Premier Jean Charest Monday, August 20, 2012 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson</p>

PQ leader Pauline Marois responds to questions following a debate with Quebec Premier Jean Charest Monday, August 20, 2012 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Practice makes perfect. These days we’re getting to the shouting-match phase of our Quebec/”Rest of Canada” disputes over values without delay. Quebec’s Parti Québécois government hasn’t even released the actual text of its Values Charter, and already the Toronto Star is calling the thing “shameful.” That was all it took for Bernard Landry to reprise one of his most treasured routines, saying a bunch of stuff in hopes that just by the law of averages, something in there might make sense:

“It’s infuriating but it’s so pathetic to go and say that Quebec is xenophobic and racist — when from the start of our national adventure we intermingled with Amerindians. The majority of us have Amerindian roots, one-quarter of us have Irish roots, we have had six premiers of Irish origin. What are these people talking about? Why are they so misinformed in the rest of Canada?…

Landry made a prediction: that the rest of Canada will one day “deeply regret” having embraced the doctrine of multiculturalism…. “In the U.S., you never see a police officer with a turban. There are things worth regulating and I hope it gets done (here).”

These tirades always remind me of Robert Bourassa, who liked to say Landry was “toujours brillant, parfois intelligent.” One hardly knows where to begin. “We intermingled with the Amerindians”? Oh, well then. 

As always, replying to Landry with information seems to miss the point, because he’s not arguing, he’s engaging in pointillism. In Washington D.C., you will see police officers with turbans. In New York City, after post-9/11 scaremongering led to rules forbidding kippas, turbans and other headgear on transit cops, they’re back. But neither would it be at all accurate to depict a world of happy headgear-wearing in which Quebec was the lone exception. Landry should have stuck with the Irish: you still won’t see a police officer with a turban over there.

But support for Quebec’s bill (if it gets tabled in a form resembling the leaks) could come from a lot closer to home. Don Macpherson reports on a weekend cartoon poll from the cartoon polling firm Forum Research, which doesn’t quite paint a stark contrast between unanimous Quebec support for the charter and unanimous English Canadian hatred for the thing. It’s 58%-33% in favour in Quebec — and narrowly opposed across the country. Forum Research found that among Conservative voters, more supported the notions in the rumoured Charter than opposed it.

I’d be happy to see a poll on these matters from a more reputable firm, but in the meantime, Forum’s makes a rough sort of sense. Of course there are plenty of Quebec voices opposed to the notion that public display of religious affiliation is somehow offensive to anyone else; those voices include Charles Taylor, whom Landry was always happy to quote when Taylor was saying something Landry found useful. And of course sentiments like the ones in the rumoured Quebec charter are not unheard-of in the “rest of Canada.” Here are old columns and on-air bits by Ezra Levant, Michael Coren and Brian Lilley struggling with questions around public display of religious affiliation. It’s worth noting that they reach varying conclusions. I like Lilley’s social-conservative argument for classical liberalism: I may not like what you do to express your faith, but I can’t be certain you’ll like what I do to express mine, so let’s just agree to leave hands off.

Let’s not kid ourselves about why the PQ is doing this. For years the party sought new recruits from immigrant, ethnic and even anglophone minorities. The fruits of that strategy were always meagre, and in 2007 under André Boisclair, its most cosmopolitan leader, the PQ had its worst result in 40 years, blindsided in part by Mario Dumont and a party advocating the same sort of nitpicking cultural engineering the PQ has tried, ever since, to appropriate.

There is a rich debate, in French, among Quebecers, over the wisdom of the Values Charter. Portraying the debate as a polarized dialogue of the deaf between Quebec and “English Canada” is not only a key pillar of PQ strategy; it is the only meagre hope of salvation Pauline Marois’s wretched government can find.