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Media Bites: Opposing Quebec's Values Charter Doesn't Make Parizeau Tolerant

10/07/2013 12:11 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It's always amusing to observe what it takes to be considered a "moderate" in Quebec.

The Liberal governments of former premiers Jean Charest and Robert Bourassa were said to be moderate, for instance. Bourassa evoked the "notwithstanding clause" to pass an unconstitutional law decreeing that French words had to be twice as big as English ones on all outdoor signage and Charest's government passed a motion declaring Quebec "a nation," but we were told things could have been worse.

The former separatist leader Andre Boisclair is currently claiming a fairly moderate defence in response to some recent corruption charges dating back to his time as a cabinet minister -- I was only rigging sweetheart construction contracts for my friends, not my gangster drug dealers -- and by Montreal standards, at least, that makes him a tower of dignity and restraint.

And now we have good old Jacques Parizeau, separatist premier from '94 to '96, and current media poster-boy of principled Quebec pragmatism.

Last Wednesday, Parizeau wrote an editorial for the French-language tabloid Le Journal de Montreal in which he offered some choice words about current PQ Premier Marois' so-called "values charter," that big, contentious proposal to ban government employees from wearing turbans and hijabs and crosses and stuff on the grounds that religion is offensive, or something.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time in Quebec we want to legislate against anything religious," said Parizeau (at least according to Google Translate), and he isn't a fan of this break with precedent. While broadly in favor of clear walls between "church and state," the ex-premier complained (albeit in a fairly roundabout way -- more on this later) that the Marois charter is causing many Quebeckers to become "seriously embarrassed" of their government while casting "federalism as the true defender" of the province's minority voters.

The response in the Anglo-Canadian press -- whose pundits have been hating on the Quebec charter for several months now -- has been nothing short of celebratory.

Ah ha, declare the editorials, you see? This Marois gal is so radical even other separatists hate her. Or, as the Toronto Star's Haroon Siddiqui put it, this "elder statesman" of Quebec separatism has proven that far from shoring up support among her nationalist base, Premier Marois "has ended up dividing the tribe itself." His Star colleague, Chantal Hebert likened it to Preston Manning hobbling out to denounce Stephen Harper.

Along with the Star, the editorial boards of the Toronto Sun and Globe and Mail, as well as National Post opinions boss Jon Kay, have all churned out similarly upbeat columns hopped up on hope that the "utterly sensible views" (Kay) of this "spiritual beacon of the sovereignty movement" (Globe) signals that Premier Marois' "benighted campaign... and its populist pandering to those who fear religious minorities" (Star) is "losing support fast" (Sun).

Amid this journalistic love-in, National Post grande dame Andrew Coyne stands alone with skepticism. Maybe because he actually read Parizeau's editorial, which, he notes, is less a fiery denunciation than a "mildly worded admonition."

You guys do realize, says Andy, that Parizeau does not actually oppose a religious headgear ban for public servants per se. In fact, he explicitly says he wants a ban to "apply to police, prosecutors, judges and generally those who have the power to compel." At best, writes Coyne, Jacques is simply making a cynical plea for the Quebec government to "ban Sikhs and Jews and Muslims from working as cops, but hold off on firing all the minority doctors and teachers and daycare workers because you're making the federalists look good." 

But since the press loves the scandalicious idea of separatists opposed to the charter, they've ignored all that in favour of the fairy tale that Parizeau represents some lost "real PQ" tradition of respect and tolerance that doesn't want to "propose measures to harass and confine minorities" -- as opposed to the illegitimate, bigoted, modern-day PQ of Mrs. Marois, that does.

It's an argument that recalls a column I read many years ago by (forgive me) Ann Coulter, in which she observed the curious historic phenomenon of western elites always claiming to know more about the "true" religion and customs of the peoples they were colonizing than the peoples themselves.

When the Brits were colonizing India, for instance, any native tradition they found barbaric was dismissed as not being "true Hinduism," and unapologetically banned. And of course, during the peak of western entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, well-meaning intellectuals in America and Europe were constantly lecturing Muslim radicals about their crimes against "true Islam," the supposedly correct interpretation of the faith that coincidentally didn't involve anything the west found objectionable -- like misogyny and apostate-killing.

The intent is to use claims of spiritual and intellectual superiority as a way to shame dangerous types into submission. It's a clever tactic that usually works, which is why warriors fighting radical movements, be they religious, political, or nationalist, are always obsessed with finding unthreatening "moderates" to model good behavior in front of the enemy's would-be recruits.

But the strategy flops if positive role models don't actually exist. And as Coyne noted, when it comes to Quebec, the notion of moderate nationalists -- that is, ones who harbor no habits of xenophobia and chauvinism -- has always proven to be an oxymoron.

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