08/29/2013 08:12 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Media Bites: Quebec's Just Doing What Everybody Else Wants to Do

Gather round, children -- the Canadian press has decided it's time for another obligatory round of Quebec bigotry-bashing!

Hot on the heels of this summer's big brou-ha-ha over whether or not turban-wearing children should be allowed on Quebec soccer fields (and before that, all sorts of high-level worries about Jews hogging the good parking spaces and spooky Muslim hamburgers), Quebec's nationalist government has decided to consolidate all its existing hang-ups about weird foreigners into a single bundle of bans.

If passed, this "Charter of Quebec Values" will make it against law to wear any "visible religious symbol" whilst working for a public sector employer -- which in Quebec, of course, is most of them. So no hijabs on doctors, no yarmulkes on health inspectors, no crucifix bling on librarians. And while we're at it, taxpayers shouldn't be allowed to wear any such geegaws while getting heart surgery or waiting in line for their vespa license, either.

Though the exact scope and size of these bans still need to be haggled out in the closely-divided Quebec parliament, the fact that Quebecois approval for the idea currently polls in the high 60s and 70s has ensured most debate within the province has more to do with application than intent.

The legislature's balance-of-power-holding third party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, has voiced its support for banning public sector religious accessories in theory, but is slightly more liberal when it comes to picking and choosing precisely which civil servants should bear its burden. Obviously we can't have Quebec's judges, cops, and teachers strutting around looking like something out of a 1971 Coke commercial, says party boss Francois Legault, but maybe we can grant a charitable exemption to, say, DMV ladies.

Now, the English-Canadian commentariat hates hates hates all this.

"Putinesque" blared a Globe and Mail editorial board headline last week." This so-called charter is "absurd, hurtful and bullying."

The horrible separatists are clearly "trying to kindle a spirit of xenophobia" agreed the National Post. Bigoted stunts like these will do little more than "embarrass their province, and needlessly threaten the rights of Quebec's minority groups."

"While you can't impose your religion onto people in the public square, you certainly shouldn't be forced to hide it for no good reason," added the Toronto Sun. And just FYI, a good reason is not "a minority government looking to improve its seat count in an upcoming election."

"Shameful and pathetic" summed up the Toronto Star. "Racial and religious discrimination and persecution, period," concluded the Calgary Herald.

All this piling on demanded a response, and yesterday Bernard Landry, Quebec's former separatist premier, stepped up to the plate.

"I take pity on some of Canada's English newspapers," Landry fumed in an interview with the Canadian Press. "It's infuriating but it's so pathetic to go and say that Quebec is xenophobic and racist," particularly, he added, when you consider some of the overlooked trivia of the province's recent political history -- like the fact that the separatist party elected Quebec's first black legislator and currently has an African immigrant serving as culture minister.

Landry went on to offer a robust defense of the practical merits of immigrant assimilation, which, if not precisely correct on every fact ("In the U.S., you never see a police officer with a turban," he quipped at one point, only to be corrected by many Americans on Twitter that, um, yes you do) was still a vastly more nuanced and insightful critique of anything-goes multiculturalism than one usually hears from the Canadian press -- let alone Canadian politicians.

I've written previously about the unprecedented levels of indifference and alienation Canadians are showing towards Quebec these days, an indifference that's at least partially prompted by disgust with the shockingly heavy-handed chauvinism of the province's current separatist government, and indeed, French-Canadians in general. But increasingly, I'm also starting to wonder if that disgust is perhaps cut with just a soupçon of jealousy.

A headline in Tuesday's National Post, for instance, noted that "almost half of all Canadians support Quebec's plan to implement ban on religious headwear, symbols." They were citing a recent poll from the Forum Research people that found only a five point difference (42-47 per cent) separating Canadians who approve banning public sector employers from wearing "religious clothing and symbols" from those who don't -- a plurality just barely outside the poll's 3 per cent margin-of-error and smaller than the 11 per cent who claimed no opinion.

Though their numbers are vastly less scientific, Sun News has also been running a number of reader surveys as of late gauging their conservative viewership's reaction to the "values charter," and here too, reactions suggest English-Canadian thinking is considerably more conflicted than that unanimous chorus of newspaper denunciations seems to imply. A Monday poll found 34 per cent of Sun fans disagreeing when asked "should religious symbols be allowed in public buildings?" -- which might not sound terribly impressive until you consider how lopsided their push-polls usually are (Last Thursday's question: "Has the White House lost credibility in the Middle East?" Answer: 95 per cent yes).

It's also true that whenever anyone bothers to ask, Canadians generally respond favourably to Landry-style arguments about the importance of encouraging immigrants to fit in and sacrifice their most ostentatiously exotic old-world customs. A 2010 Angus Reid poll even found 52 per cent of Canadians voicing support for that supposedly most un-Canadian of ideas: a melting-pot culture, where "immigrants should assimilate and blend into Canadian society."

Indeed, I've found when you discuss Quebec immigration policy with ordinary Canucks -- as opposed to ones with their own newspaper columns or political parties -- one of the most common reactions is irritated grumbling that spoiled child Quebec is "allowed to get away" with pushing exactly the sort of assimilationist agenda much of Alberta/B.C./Ontario/wherever would like to pursue, but can't because "we'd be called racist."

So we call them racist instead.

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