'Quebec bashing': Why an English federal debate question continues to draw criticism
Published Thursday, September 16, 2021 1:15PM EDT Last Updated Thursday, September 16, 2021 2:17PM EDT
MONTREAL -- A question at the English-language federal leaders' debate last week has become a major issue in Quebec, boosting the Bloc Quebecois in the polls and drawing criticism from Quebec politicians, federal party leaders and the province's media.
For people who follow Quebec politics, the widespread negative response to the question, which described two Quebec laws as discriminatory, wasn't a surprise.
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They say it comes at a time when many Quebecers are particularly sensitive to the idea that English-Canadian journalists, politicians and public intellectuals talk down to Quebec -- widely referred to as "Quebec bashing" -- and when the province's popular Premier Francois Legault has successfully portrayed himself as the defender of Quebec's language and culture.
"Personally, when I heard that question, I cringed," Martin Papillon, a professor of political science at the Universite de Montreal, said in an interview Wednesday. "Not because I thought the question was completely outrageous, but because I thought it was out of bounds for the anchor of a debate to ask such a loaded question."
In the preamble to a question last Thursday to Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, debate moderator Shachi Kurl said: "You deny that Quebec has problems with racism, yet you defend legislation, such as bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones."
Bill 96 is a language law reform currently before the Quebec legislature, while Bill 21 refers to the secularism law that came into effect in 2019 and bars certain government employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.
Papillon said he thinks many Quebecers saw the question as an example of English-Canadian media not taking the time to understand issues in the province from a Quebec perspective.
"Whether it goes too far, whether it's a good use of public authority, or not, that's a debate," he said. "But the very idea that there's a need for this, or that it's legitimate for the Quebec state to develop its own approach to these questions is not a question."
The suggestion that Quebec in particular has a problem with racism reinforces the widespread perception in the province that English-Canadian media takes a condescending tone when talking about Quebec issues, he said.
Daniel Beland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said the question has been seen as an example of what's known in the province as "Quebec bashing."
Many "Quebecers feel that there are a lot of people outside of Quebec who think that Quebecers are racist, who portray Quebecers in a very negative way. So there's a sense that Quebec is under attack," he said.
Blanchet has been able to use that politically, he said.
"The Bloc is rising in the polls right now. It's because he has used that and said, this was not just an attack against me, it was an attack against Quebec, and I'm the best one to speak on the behalf of Quebec and to fight against, again, Quebec bashing," Beland said.
But it's not just nationalists who have criticized the question, Beland said. It's also drawn criticism from opponents of Bill 21 who say that because it was seen to be an attack on Quebec, it makes it harder for people in the province who oppose the law.
Jack Jedwab, the president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, said he thinks it was a mistake for Kurl to equate the secularism law with the language law reform and systemic racism.
That's helped the provincial government and the province's tabloid media to "continue to cast those people who legitimately question this legislation, particularly Bill 21, as not being Quebecers," he said. "What we're hearing is something like if you oppose Bill 21, or the language legislation, you're not part of the Quebec nation."
Premier Legault, who refers to himself as a nationalist and campaigned on a promise of putting Quebec first within Canada, has been particularly critical of Kurl's question, calling it "unacceptable."
Papillon said Legault, who has remained popular during the pandemic, has successfully framed the debate on his government's secularism bill and language law reform "as a debate about Quebec identity and the Quebec nation."
"That makes it very difficult for political parties, both at the National Assembly, but also, quite frankly, federal parties to take a critical stance on these laws," he said.
On Tuesday, the Quebec legislature voted unanimously to call for the broadcasters to apologize for the question, which it described as "Quebec bashing" -- a motion introduced by the opposition Liberals, who had opposed Bill 21. A day later on the federal campaign trail, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all called on the group of broadcasters that organized the debate to apologize for the question.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.