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Media Bites: And Quebec's Great Debate Rages On

09/19/2013 08:38 EDT | Updated 11/19/2013 05:12 EST

We're fast approaching week four of what we might call Quebec's September of Secularism. Or maybe Fall of Faith-bashing? Month of Marois? Late Summer of Laïcité? In any case, the Quebec government's authoritarian Charter of Values -- the euphemistic name for Premier Marois' still-pending proposal to outlaw the wearing of religious hats and head-coverings among (basically) non-white, non-Christian immigrants working in the province's enormous public sector -- shows no sign of loosening its grip on the collective heart, minds and word processors of the Canadian commentariat. And why not? It's not like there's anything else interesting happening in the world. Especially now that Putin's stopped that war in Syria or whatever.

In fairness, it's clear that the primary reason our editorialists continue to gab so incessantly about the Quebec charter (by my estimation, every big city paper in this country -- or at least the east -- will publish at least one charter-themed column a day) is because the whole issue is such a convenient launchpad for deeper discussions of countless other matters. To put it another way, while there's little serious debate in the Canadian press about the overall need for the Quebec charter and the headgear bans within -- virtually every English-speaking pundit on both the left and right agrees it's a Bad Thing -- there's still much back-and-forth to be had regarding why the Quebeckers created the thing in the first place, and whether those motives are sympathetic or sinister.

Put Margaret Wente down for "sinister." The Globe and Mail columnist is one of many pundits who thinks there's no explanation for the charter beyond crass politics on the part of Madame Marois, a woman heading a government, in Wente's words, that's "about as popular as stomach flu" and therefore desperate to "whip up a little populist resentment" among her party's bitter French-supremacist base -- who instinctively distrust anyone without a beret and baguette -- and ride that xenophobia to a ballot box victory.

Yup, agrees fellow Globeo Jeff Simpson, Marois is a champion player of "wedge issue" politics: cleave society into a virtuous majority and wicked minority, then reap the votes of the goods by bashing the bads. And if the Premier can bash enough bads -- in this case, sikhs, Jews, and Muslims who aren't down with Quebec's unique brand of lefto-secularism -- her party could "coalesce just enough francophone voters to allow it to eke out a majority victory" -- assuming the wily wedging works.

But before anyone gets too self-righteous, adds Martin Cohn in the Toronto Star, let's not forget that such wedging is hardly unique to Quebec politics. Just off the top of his head, Marty can recall at least two times in Ontario that politicians have wedged minorities in order to reap varying levels of political reward: provincial Tory boss Tim Hudak's constant rabble-rousing over "foreign workers" takin' yer jerbs in the 2011 election, and Premier McGuinty's attempts to stir Islamophobia and "latent anti-Catholic sentiments" when he rallied against the Conservatives' plans to increase funding to faith-based schools in 2007.

No "one province," concludes Cohn, "is immune to the cynical plots of politicians who resort to the ethnic card or target religious believers"

But who's to say fearmongering is always illegitimate, replies Jackson Doughart in the National Post. Fact is, sometimes immigrants do, in fact, import traditions "profound hostility to the native culture." Veiling females as a means of suppressing the "full civic participation of women," for instance.

Don't get him wrong, Jack hates the charter too ("an absurdly-broad sweep"), but he's also got a problem with a doctrine of multiculturalism that tries to "incentivize any idea or behaviour which accentuates the appearance of diversity," such as the wearing of funny head things, as inherently positive unto itself. After all, from Holland to England, to Germany to France, the western world is fraught by tensions born from uncritically importing a lot of wildly different sorts of people bearing wildly different traditions and philosophies then expecting them to live together in perfect harmony in very tight quarters. Premier Marois' ham-handed technique of imposing social harmony through clothing bans may not be a perfect solution to this dilemma, "but at least the Québécois are trying," Jackson shrugs.

Indeed, nods Robert Sibley at the Ottawa Citizen. Once we chop away what Ms. Wente calls the obvious "collateral damage" of the charter -- namely its butt-covering bans on Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes to make it look like this isn't all about Islam -- you could easily argue "that Quebec's actions reflect a zeitgest that has emerged as Westerners question whether the presence of large numbers of Muslims is a long-term threat to western cultural and its values." In fact, he says, approvingly quoting the writing of Quanta Ahmed, an anti-fundamentalist Muslim-American scholar, you could even say that banning the burka "is necessary in order to curtail the advancement of rigid expressions of a false Islam," i.e.; cruel and intolerant fundamentalist Islam, and promote the growth of a far less harmful flavour of the faith.

In one sense, these various takes on the Quebec charter are contradictory -- Cohn and Sibley can probably be best described as "apologists" for the thing, or at least pragmatists, while Simpson, Wente, and Cohn are obvious critics -- yet at the same time, their views are hardly incompatible. It's entirely possible for the Quebec charter to be a cynical vote-grab stemming from the dark side of Canadian politics, while also allowing that the "problem" the headgear ban seeks to solve -- unchecked multiculturalism in general, unassimilated Muslim immigrants in particular -- is real and legitimate.

In any case, as the weeks progress, the conversation in the Canadian press about all of this is steadily getting more thoughtful, nuanced, and insightful, as any prolonged dialogue among intelligent people on a complicated topic inevitably is.

Nothing wrong with a few more weeks of that.

Quebec Values Charter