Montreal

Quebec government follows advice of populist columnist, boots philosopher from public forum

The Quebec government withdrew an invitation to one of the province’s most prominent philosophers to take part in a public forum on the future of a religious and ethics class. The reason: the philosopher advocated symbolic circumcisions on young girls. The problem: he doesn’t.

Tabloid accused thinker of backing symbolic circumcisions. He doesn't. But government sided with the tabloid

Daniel Weinstock teaches in McGill's law faculty and is director of the university's Institute for Health and Social Policy. (Radio-Canada)

When the Quebec government decided earlier this year to reform the mandatory religious and ethics education course taught in the province's schools, it invited Daniel Weinstock — a prominent philosopher at McGill University — to take part in public meetings on the issue.

But that invitation was promptly withdrawn Wednesday after the Journal de Montréal, the largest newspaper in Quebec by circulation, published a column that incorrectly accused Weinstock of advocating a form of circumcision for young girls.

Even though Weinstock's opposition to such practices is well-documented — he reiterated his position in a Facebook post Wednesday — Quebec's education minister said he was standing by his decision to withdraw the invitation.

"Certain comments made by Mr. Weinstock in the past lead to confusion," a spokesperson for the minister said in a statement to CBC News.

Weinstock's presence would be a distraction, the statement said, and that the ministry is "convinced that Mr. Weinstock can understand the situation."

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge's office said it would make no further comment.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced earlier this year he intends to reform the religious and ethics education course taught in Quebec schools. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

A well-documented position  

In the column, the Journal's Richard Martineau surfaces two rhetorical questions that Weinstock asked at an event in 2012.

Weinstock, who teaches in McGill's law faculty and is director of the university's Institute for Health and Social Policy, was explaining the ethical dilemma involved in what's known as the "Seattle Compromise," when doctors in the city offered to symbolically circumcise Somali patients in order to spare them more extreme and more dangerous procedures.

"Could we propose this to the Muslim community to prevent worse," Weinstock said that event. 

Martineau takes this as evidence that Weinstock himself endorses the Seattle Compromise. But according to a transcript of the 2012 event — which Martineau cites — Weinstock made clear he is simply describing and not endorsing the compromise.

At several points in the evening, he states his staunch opposition to clitoridectomy. Weinstock has also written repeatedly about his opposition to the symbolic circumcisions of girls.

Richard Martineau, who also appears on various other platforms of the Quebecor media chain, regularly engages in populist rhetoric in support of nationalist causes. (Agnieszka Stalkoper/Radio-Canada)
 

In 2013, a blogger for the Huffington Post made an allegation similar to the one Martineau made this week.

Weinstock wrote a rebuttal at the time, pointing out the errors in the original piece. The blogger apologized and retracted.

In 2014, Weinstock co-authored an article entitled "The Grounds and Limits of Parents' Cultural Prerogatives: The Case of Circumcision." That piece contains the following line:

"Clearly, the meaning attached to the practice [of genital scarring], even in the more moderate form suggested in the "Seattle compromise," is incompatible with the norm of gender equality."

Weinstock circulated that article on Facebook Wednesday after the Journal column appeared. There again, he reiterated his opposition to the Seattle Compromise.

'A terrifying precedent'

Weinstock had initially been invited by Education Ministry officials to deliver the opening remarks at a public forum to be held Friday in Montreal. The event will hear proposals about how to reform the ethics dimension of the school course.

Within hours of the column being published, Roberge's office told a Journal de Montréal reporter that the "information" in Martineau's piece had prompted them to withdraw Weinstock's invitation.

In an interview with CBC News, Weinstock said no one from the Journal de Montréal contacted him, either before or after the articles appeared.     

Weinstock said an Education Ministry official did phone him later in the day, and acknowledged the inaccuracies in the original report. But the official also maintained it would be a distraction if Weinstock were to still be allowed to deliver the opening remarks.

They offered to let him participate in a limited capacity, but Weinstock refused.

"The only honourable thing to do would be to realize [they] made a mistake, somebody spoke in the heat of the moment without checking their facts, and invite me to speak as originally planned," Weinstock said.

A selection of Richard Martineau columns dealing with Islam. (Radio-Canada)

He said he was particularly unsettled that the provincial government acted based on a column by a known polemicist. 

"That is a terrifying, terrifying precedent," he said. Weinstock added that he hasn't ruled out taking legal action.   

Martineau, who also appears on various other platforms of the Quebecor media chain, regularly engages in populist rhetoric in support of nationalist causes.

He is often accused of stoking Islamophobic sentiment, by Muslim advocacy groups, university researchers and other columnists.

His Facebook account was suspended for seven days last year, reportedly after making comments that were deemed transphobic.

And on at least four occasions, Martineau has been reprimanded by the Quebec Press Council for, among other things, inventing quotes (2012), circulating incorrect information (2014) and pushing stereotypes (2013).

Quebecor Media, the owner of the Journal de Montréal, has not returned a request for comment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Cathy Senay at the National Assembly

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