Intolerance, xenophobia have permeated political rhetoric in Quebec

Intolerance and xenophobia have been above the surface of the political debate in Quebec for years. It will be interesting to see if this week’s attack at a Quebec City mosque will submerge them, Terence McKenna writes.

Premier says ‘our role as leaders’ is to express rejection of racism, exclusion

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, speaks to reporters as Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, right, looks on at a news conference Monday about the deadly shooting at a mosque the previous evening. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

There was an uncomfortable moment in the Quebec National Assembly news conference Monday where political leaders came together with Muslim community spokesmen to express their joint grief at the shooting the night before in a local mosque.

Premier Philippe Couillard was asked about anti-Muslim political rhetoric and the recent comments he had made about opposition politicians who ape the political message of the anti-immigrant right-wing European parties.

Standing beside the premier, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume turned and stared intently at Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée.

Boufeldja Benabdallah, middle, pauses as he addresses a news conference following the deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque. Benabdallah is the co-founder of the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (Islamic cultural centre of Quebec), where six men were shot and killed during evening prayers. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Couillard solemnly declared that this was not a time for politics, but went on to emphasize that "spoken words matter. Written words matter."

"We are not different from other societies. We have the same devils. Xenophobia, racism, exclusion exist in Quebec, too. Our role as leaders is to express without any compromise our rejection of these type of thoughts and attitudes." 

The exchange was a reference to comments made by Couillard on Lisée's first day as PQ leader last October, when he said Lisée bore a "family resemblance" to the European anti-immigrant parties.

"His narrative is one of a beleaguered nationalism, a nationalism of fear, of people who don't want to confront diversity, who prefer that Quebec remains closed in on itself. That's what we're seeing elsewhere in the world."

Allegation refuted

Lisée has strongly refuted the allegation that he is in league with the right-wing anti-immigration parties in Europe and has pointed out that even the left-wing Socialist Party in France has moved to ban Muslim face veils in public spaces. 

During his leadership campaign last fall, he went so far as to justify the need for a ban on Muslim clothing by claiming that a Muslim woman could hide an AK-47 machine gun under her burka.

Muslim leaders speak at a news conference on Jan. 30, 2017, in Quebec City alongside politicians including Couillard and Labeaume. (Maxime Corneau/CBC)

In a recent interview, I asked Lisée if he understood that many Muslims would regard that statement as "racist hysteria."

He said he did understand that, but "we know for a fact that the RCMP or [Quebec provincial police] believe that there are 25 suspects close to the Islamic State in Quebec as we speak." (CBC News could find no public evidence to support that statement.)

He went on to refer to attacks and another incident in Canada. "There has been one attempt in St-Jean, there has been one attempt in Ottawa, there are students at Maisonneuve [College] that were caught with explosives in Montreal. These are facts. Should we be prudent or not?"

He acknowledged that none of those cases involved a Muslim woman hiding a machine gun under her burka.

'How dangerous it can be'

McGill University law professor and philosopher Daniel Weinstock reacted to Lisée's remarks.

"Various politicians, and Jean-François Lisée is not the only one, have not understood just how dangerous it can be in the present climate to try to make short-term political gain by even winking or nodding in the direction of these often very difficult-to-control sentiments that are out there."

Weinstock was a member of Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor Commission that held public consultations across the province 10 years ago about the explosive topic of "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities.

Hearings for the commission at times exposed racist undercurrents that seemed to exist in parts of rural Quebec that have little exposure to immigrant populations.

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée Lisee has strongly refuted the allegation that he is in league with the right-wing anti-immigration parties in Europe. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

Lisée walked back the AK-47 remark and some of his other inflammatory comments in an interview with CBC Radio's Daybreak Tuesday and acknowledged that it's "very difficult to be a Muslim today."

But he warned against painting Quebec as a "systematically racist" society. "I think everyone should tone down the rhetoric," he said.

Trash radio

"Radio poubelle" or trash radio is the nickname given to a handful of right-wing radio commentators in Quebec City who frequently rave on against Muslims and political refugees who have settled in the area. 

Muslim leaders have complained that city bus drivers often play those radio programs at high volume as they drive around town.

A woman becomes emotional during a vigil in support of the Muslim community in Montreal, Quebec, January 30, 2017. (Dario Ayala/Reuters)

The regular listeners of those programs are the political clientele being fought over by Lisée and Quebec's other opposition leader, François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Quebec. 

Both leaders maintained Monday that they will continue with their "identity politics" messaging, that the mosque attack should have no effect on Quebec's political debate.

'We should have this discussion'

In his interview with me, Lisée insisted that Quebec should be able to have the same debate about Muslim clothing that is occurring in 10 European countries.

"I don't think we will be able not to have this discussion. At some point, we should have the discussion about the full veil in the public space," he said.

Coincidentally, I also recently interviewed Frauke Petry, leader of Germany's anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

She offered a rationale very similar to Lisée's.

"Where we talk about religion, we think we should openly discuss the differences and the problems connected to that. There's nothing xenophobic.

"We will have to have this discussion in Germany because we have serious integration problems connected to religious background." 

Frauke Petry, leader of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, has suggested German border guards should use their weapons to stop Syrian refugees from entering the country illegally. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Petry famously suggested that German border guards should use their weapons to stop Syrian refugees from entering the country illegally and would like to ban the construction of mosques and minarets.

Recently, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a Muslim, told me he strongly believes that Canada is a place where multiculturalism and pluralism work, but "we've got to fight every single day to make sure that we stay that way, because those elements of intolerance, small-mindedness and xenophobia are just below the surface."

"And we have to fight hard not to give them permission to come to the surface."

Those elements have been very much above the surface in the Quebec political debate. It will be interesting to see if the mosque attack will submerge them. 


Terence McKenna

Correspondent / Documentary maker

Terence McKenna has reported extensively on domestic and international affairs for more than 40 years. His CBC documentaries have won numerous awards in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. Based in Toronto, he now reports for CBC's The National.