06/14/2012 11:38 EDT | Updated 08/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Charest vs. the banana - no laughing matter; funny costume belies discussion on violence

QUEBEC - In a contest between the premier of Quebec and an angry banana, Premier Jean Charest appeared to get the upper hand Thursday.

An anarchist rock band at the centre of a political controversy this week cancelled a performance at Quebec City's Fete nationale party after Charest complained about its presence. The band's lead singer, called "Bananarchist," dresses as the tropical fruit.

Their dispute, at its core, is no laughing matter.

It springs from a more serious discussion about violence, or talk of violence, during the four-month student dispute that has caused unrest in the province.

The premier had expressed outrage earlier Thursday that organizers of a Quebec holiday party would include the band Mise En Demure on its list of acts.

The band has garnered considerable media attention this week over its artwork. It's the same anarchist rock group whose promotional art shows a likeness of the premier dead, at the feet of Quebec solidaire politician Amir Khadir.

The band has sung about stabbing a university rector and slugging the provincial education minister, Michelle Courchesne, in the face with a sledgehammer. It has also recorded a song suggesting, in crude language, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mother regrets having conceived him.

The band's promotional art includes pictures of certain Quebec personalities deemed to be conservative — including Charest, ex-PQ premier Lucien Bouchard, and Quebecor boss Pierre-Karl Peladeau — with their heads severed and mounted on a wall, like hunted game.

The mayor of Quebec City also weighed in, saying the group shouldn't be allowed to play on the historic Plains of Abraham next week. The band pulled out later Thursday, after organizers told them they feared financing might be cut for the city-funded event.

But band members weren't happy. They say their lyrics are meant to be funny and they're now describing themselves as victims of censorship.

"We find it absolutely deplorable," said the singer, who calls himself "Bananarchiste" in French. He was wearing his costume during a press conference in Montreal. "This is a complete interference of the state and municipality in cultural events (whose organizers) they hold by the nuts because they depend on subsidies."

Earlier Thursday, Charest had accused organizers of ruining the spirit of Quebec's June 24 holiday by inviting the band, whose lyrics make insulting or threatening references to certain politicians, namely those who tend to be more conservative.

He said the June 24 Fete nationale belongs to all Quebecers and shouldn't carry divisive political overtones — as it frequently has in the past.

Charest also said in the last few months, during the student protests, too many people in Quebec have been trivializing violence and it's becoming disturbing.

"We've been seeing a phenomenon in Quebec for a few months that is sad and troubling," Charest told reporters Thursday in Quebec City.

"It's time to stand up and say, 'This doesn't reflect our values. This doesn't reflect who we are as Quebecers.' "

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said he asked the band to bow out on Thursday. The city contributes $170,000 in financing for the event. Labeaume brushed off accusations of censorship.

"I'm democratically elected and I made this decision," Labeaume said. "It's certain that some people will find me fascist and will say I'm censoring but I'm using my common sense."

Members of the group say they're not the dangerous ones.

"We are not threatening. Everything we do is humour. It's not really incitement to murder. It's jokes," said Bananarchiste.

"(The police), on the other hand, they club us everyday, pepper spray us, and send us to jail."

There was also a strong political undercurrent at work in Thursday's dispute.

Charest is expected to make the theme a central part of his upcoming re-election plan — and pit his tuition hikes against the social strife he says is being stoked by the opposition.

But the opposition said it's the premier stoking that unrest, for his own partisan reasons, by refusing to back down from his contentious tuition plan.

The premier brushed aside a question from a reporter who suggested he was making a bigger deal out of the Fete nationale issue than it deserved to be.

Charest said it indeed is a big deal — and everyone has a responsibility to speak out.

In recent weeks, a small number of protesters have been chanting references to killing the premier by making oblique comparisons to Pierre Laporte, the Quebec politician killed in 1970 by the terrorist FLQ. One of the chants suggests Charest might be found someday in a car "trunk" — which is where Laporte's body was discovered, on Montreal's south shore.

There have also been suspicious packages delivered to numerous addresses recently — always harmless so far, and in some cases identified as baking powder.

Most recipients have been people identified as government supporters. But a suspicious package was received at the home Thursday of Khadir, a staunch Charest critic.

Montreal police say firefighters tested the air in the home and an initial analysis of the contents of the envelope determined there was nothing dangerous inside.

A sample has been sent to a Quebec lab for further testing.

-With files from Martin Ouellet and Melanie Marquis