A tale of two politicians: Harper and Trudeau wade into controversial Quebec issue

The prime minister dipped a tentative toe in the rocky waters of Quebec identity politics. The opposition leader who wants to replace him, meanwhile, dove right in.

It was a tale of two reactions, featuring Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, as each leader Thursday made headline-grabbing remarks about the controversial Charter of Quebec Values. They did so in very contrasting styles.

Harper trod warily.

He promised to keep an eye on the eventual policy to ensure minority rights were protected. But, in the meantime, he cited two reasons for withholding comment.

The prime minister said he wanted to wait because the Parti Quebecois government had not even made its plan public yet — and isn’t expected to do so for another two weeks.

He also expressed concern about getting sucked into a political undercurrent.

“We know that the separatist government in Quebec would love to pick fights with Ottawa,” Harper told a Toronto news conference.

“But that’s not our business. Our business is the economy. Our business is job-creation for Canadians — all Canadians, including Quebecers.”

In the next breath, though, he added that the federal government also has a responsibility to minorities and he intends to live up to it.

“And our job is social inclusion. Our job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel at home in this country and be Canadians,” he said. “That’s our job.”

He is the last major federal leader to comment on the issue, which has raged for over a week. Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have each criticized the PQ idea more than once.

A leaked copy of the plan suggests the PQ wants to restrict public employees from wearing religious symbols like turbans, kippas, hijabs and visible crosses.

Trudeau, apparently, has heard enough.

In his latest remarks attacking the plan, the Liberal leader used the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to lambaste the plan.

He appeared to draw parallels between the PQ policy and U.S. segregation.

And thus began the latest chapter in the long, acrimonious history between the Parti Quebecois and federal Liberal leaders named Trudeau.

“Oh, my god,” said Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, when asked for a reaction Thursday.

“I think he should make a little bit of an effort to elevate the debate — instead of lowering it. I don’t think it is helpful to get into this line of argument. I think we should try to have this debate in a respectful manner — even if we disagree sometimes.

“There’s a little bit of contempt in that and I don’t think it helps the debate.”

Premier Pauline Marois echoed the sentiment: “I don’t want to judge him by his comments, but it’s evident that his comments are not an invitation to calm, (they) don’t invite serenity, but rather throw oil on the fire.”

At a partisan rally the previous night, Trudeau said that 50 years after King had fought against the notion of second-class citizens, there were still people in Quebec who would reduce others’ rights.

Trudeau said: “These days when you reflect on the 50th anniversary of that magnificent speech by Dr. King, who was fighting segregation, who was fighting discrimination, who was rejecting the notion that there are second-class citizens, you see that unfortunately even today, when we’re talking, for instance, about this idea of a Charter of Quebec Values, that there are still people who believe you must choose between your religion and Quebecois identity, that there are people forced by the state in Quebec to make irresponsible and inconceivable choices.”

Pequistes fumed at the accusation of intolerance.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier described King as an inspiration to the PQ, as well. Trudeau, on the other hand, appeared only to inspire its frustration.

“I don’t think Mr. Trudeau has any lessons to give to Quebecers,” Cloutier said.

“You have to remember that his father patriated the Constitution without Quebec’s consent. He does not act as a leader. He should ask his people to have an open-minded dialogue — and not put pressure on divisions.

“He’s definitely adding words of division.”

Polls suggest the charter idea is popular in Quebec — although it’s unclear how high of a priority it is for voters there.

Quebecers have also told pollsters they’re interested in many other issues, like economic ones, above the charter idea.

In Quebec, the opposition Liberals are resisting the plan, which they deride as a PQ attempt to distract from economic concerns.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard pointed to a report by the Desjardins bank titled, “Quebec: Economy Stalled,” which noted that the GDP numbers had edged mildly into negative territory since the spring with the biggest drop in the manufacturing sector.

“People (around Quebec) talk to me about the economy and jobs — constantly,” said Couillard, who offered five suggestions Thursday to stimulate the economy.

“The government is using a diversionary tactic, a pretty shameful one in my opinion.”

The Liberals say they will put forward a plan, a very different one from the PQ’s, as their contribution to the debate — even if they describe the whole issue as a distraction.

The minority-rights debate certainly does appear to have pushed other topics toward the margins of the province’s political discussion.

At a lengthy news conference Thursday, about three-quarters of the questions put to Marois were about hot-button identity issues: the values charter, and language.

While the PQ pushes ahead on religion, it appears to be stalled on the language front.

Marois suggested that her minority government’s Bill 14 would not be watered down anymore and might die on the order paper because of opposition obstinacy. She said there will be more negotiations with the Coalition party, but she held out little hope of success.

“It can still be called to a vote — I don’t exclude anything — but at this moment the chances of getting it adopted appear slim,” she said.

She declined to address the obvious followup question: Will that language issue, then, become a centrepiece of the next PQ election campaign?

Marois brushed off questions about another election.

As for Trudeau, he softened his words somewhat after he came in for criticism Thursday.

He agreed that there was no parallel between the PQ plan and segregation, however he also said he did not regret the remarks.

“The idea that you could be treated as a second-class citizen and barred access to working for the state, if you practice your religion, it’s something that’s worrisome,” Trudeau said during a news conference.

“There is no parallel between segregation and the Quebec Charter. The parallel is certainly between the fight for openness and respect and acceptance for everything that everyone is.”

It was too late to prevent a scolding from Coalition Leader Francois Legault.

“I understand that Mr. Trudeau is the son of Mr. Trudeau, and that the Canadian Charter (of Rights) that enshrined multiculturalism is probably something he feels obliged to defend,” Legault said.

“But I don’t think Quebecers want to put all cultures on the same footing. We need to defend our values. We believe in the neutrality of the state We believe in gender equality. We believe it’s important to defend the heritage of the majority that has a Catholic past.

“There’s still a nation here that Mr. Trudeau appears not to understand.”

Legault is the third-party leader who will likely hold the swing vote whenever the values-charter legislation is introducted. He has suggested he agrees with parts of the PQ plan but will seek to have it watered down slightly.

He also criticized the Quebec Liberals for being so hostile to the idea, accusing them of seeking to appease their electoral “clientele,” meaning ethnic and Anglo Quebecers.

-With files by Joan Bryden, Alexandre Robillard and Lia Levesque