It may be a stretch to call it “the boot heard round the world.” But Jagmeet Singh attracted international attention with his ejection from the House of Commons last week for calling another member racist. The incident caught the attention of  both the BBC and National Public Radio in the U.S. and, according to iPolitics, assorted other international media outlets.

As has been widely reported, the racist epithet was hung on Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien who denied unanimous consent for debate on the NDP leader’s motion to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP and review the Mounties’ budget, its use of force and its accountability to the public.

According to Singh, the Bloc member accompanied his voiced denial of unanimous consent with a dismissive wave of the hand, which prompted the racism allegation. Neither the hand gesture or Singh’s response were caught by Hansard.

But when the Bloc complained NDP MP Carol Hughes, who as assistant deputy speaker was chairing the committee meeting, asked Singh to apologize. On the record this time, he refused and repeated the accusation. Hughes referred the problem to the boss speaker, Liberal Anthony Rota, who returned to the chair and told the NDP leader to take the rest of the day off.

I will leave to others who’ve experienced it to decide whether Therrien’s allegedly callous dismissal of the NDP motion makes him a racist. Similarly, Ottawa political insiders can mull over the irony of a party leader getting thrown out of the House for refusing to follow direction from a member of his own caucus, acting in her capacity as assistant deputy speaker. There may also be a few tongues wagging over the reaction of Jagmeet Singh’s predecessor, Tom Mulcair. Now a pundit for CTV, he jumped immediately to Therrien’s defense, saying Singh should apologize.

“If you’re using racism because you don’t like somebody’s hand gestures, you have no other information about that person’s core beliefs, they’ve never said or done anything that anybody would identify as being racist, it’s not that you’re making them uncomfortable, you’re using a very serious term and you better have something to back it up.”

Either Mulcair forgot about, or was unconcerned with, the fact that as a provincial MNA, Alain Therrien revealed himself as a conspiracy-minded Islamophobe who used his official Facebook page to promote the views of a controversial anti-Muslim academic.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the story is the Bloc’s over-reaction and what that says about how identity politics have played out federally in Quebec since the amazing Orange Wave of 2011 handed 59 seats to the NDP and practically wiped out the Bloc, the nominally separatist party that had been a fixture in the House of Commons for almost 20 years.

Protest excessive

The first thing to consider is that if it had not been raised by the Bloc, Singh’s initial comments may have floated off into the clouds with countless other bits of across-the-aisle banter and insult that over the years have gone unrecorded and unreported. But not only did the Bloc make an issue of Singh’s accusation, they complained that the one-day suspension was not punishment enough, promising to raise the matter again when the House comes back next month.

The morning after the headline-making banishment, Bloc Leader Yves Blanchet vehemently denied the allegation, telling reporters that “Alain Therrien is anything but a racist person, and the Bloc Québécois are anything but racist people.”

Blanchet claimed the Bloc denied consent to debate Singh’s motion only because systemic racism in policing was already scheduled to be discussed by a House committee. A day or two later the former long-time Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe weighed in, trying to frame the affair as an attack on Quebec. In an interview on Global’s The West Block he accused Singh of crying racism to win votes in the rest of Canada. Duceppe acknowledged there is systemic racism in Quebec, just as there is elsewhere in the country. “There is systematic racism in Quebec but we certainly don’t have to take lessons from the rest of Canada.”

The Bloc backlash brings to mind the words of Shakespeare, as uttered by Queen Gertrude in Hamlet: “the lady (gentlemen) doth protest too much, methinks.”  The fierce denials suggest an effort to obscure the truth. Bloc members may insist they are not racist, but they can’t deny they have been among the most fervent supporters of measures advanced by successive Quebec governments, policies that have been denounced as racist. And the record bears out that the Bloc has benefitted politically from that support, mostly at the expense of the NDP.

Reasonable accommodation

Identity politics in Quebec has surfaced mainly around the issue of reasonable accommodation of minorities, specifically the right to display religious symbols while providing or receiving public services. As a political problem it dates back to at least 2002 when the Supreme Court of Canada over-ruled a local school board and allowed a young Sikh man to wear a ceremonial dagger to school, under strict conditions. In 2006 the tabloids and some politicians became riled up at a successful effort by Hasidic Jews in Outremont to get tinted windows installed at the local YMCA swimming pool to block the sight of women in bathing suits.

The worldwide outburst of Islamophobia following 9-11 also resonated in Quebec, so much so that controversy over reasonable accommodation of Islam has become the dominant issue. The controversy reached a bizarre peak in 2007 when the rural village of Hérouxville found it necessary to create a code of conduct lest any Muslims chose to settle there. The code prohibited, among other things, stoning and female genital mutilation, but it attracted wide media attention and was treated seriously by some politicians as a heartfelt cry. As a result, the Liberal government of Jean Charest set up an inquiry commission co-chaired by sociologist Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

“Even though the Bouchard-Taylor Commission concluded that there was no problem with the practice of accommodation – what was reported in the media differed from what was happening “on the ground” – the commission uncovered considerable fear among the Québécois that immigration and accommodations were infringing on their values.”

Whatever fear Quebeckers were feeling about immigration or accommodation does not seem to have been a factor in the 2011 federal election campaign when a sudden infatuation with the Jack Layton and the NDP produced the Orange Wave. But fear would soon be stoked with a return to power, after a nine-year hiatus, of the Parti Quebecois.

In 2013 the PQ government brought in the Charter of Quebec Values. To its supporters, it was affirmation of a secular society, free from religious influence on government. Others saw chauvinism in its provisions, including one banning public sector employees from wearing or displaying conspicuous religious symbols. During demonstrations against the charter, protesters chanted “valeurs péquiste, valeurs racistes”(PQ values, racist values).

In Ottawa, the remnants of the Bloc showed support for the initiative by kicking out one if its four surviving members -veteran MP Maria Mourani  who called the Quebec values charter a triumph of political opportunism over human rights.

Niqab controversy

The PQ government and its charter were gone by the time of the 2015 federal election, defeated by the Liberals, who would wait until 2017 before venturing into the minefield of religious symbol suppression. But the issue surfaced anyway, thanks to the Harper government’s embrace of Islamophobia. The Conservative policy requiring Muslim women taking the oath of citizenship to remove their face coverings – the niqab – during public ceremonies was struck down in court a month before the election. Although the plaintiff in the case was from the Toronto area, the ruling had a big impact in Quebec.

The Conservatives vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court, a course opposed by both the NDP and the Liberals. But the NDP had the most to lose in Quebec – and lose they did. A week after the court ruling, Thomas Mulcair re-iterated the NDP position. As the Canadian Federal Election of 2015 put it:

“Though the party knew all too well that its position on the issue was playing badly in Quebec, in the first French-language leaders’ debate, on September 24, Mulcair took a principled stand. Support for the NDP in Quebec never recovered.”

As the NDP began to fall behind the Liberals in Quebec, the party’s support in the rest of the country followed suit as voters moved to the Liberals as the better choice for defeating the Conservatives. And in Quebec, the decline of the NDP also revived the Bloc. The separatists came into the election with only two seats but came out with 10, flipping seven NDP seats with the help of a racist attack ad depicting oil spilled from a proposed Energy East pipeline morphing into a woman in a niqab.

The NDP managed to retain 16 Quebec seats but its post-election standing in Quebec continued to decline after Mulcair lost a convention confidence vote in the spring of 2016 and fell further when Singh won the leadership 18 months later. In what could be construed as tacit acceptance of systemic racism in our politics, it was widely assumed that wearing a turban – which would disqualify Singh from working in the Quebec public service – would also doom the NDP’s prospects in Quebec in the 2019 federal election.

That prophecy was strengthened by a new development in the reasonable accommodations debate – the election in 2018 of the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government under Francois Legault. CAQ promised its version of a religious symbols ban, to be enforced by using the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter of Rights. The new law,  Bill 21,  was passed in the spring of 2019, just in time to be an issue in the federal election campaign.

The 2019 election

Absent hard evidence of why Quebec voters voted the way they did in the 2019, we are left to consider some relevant facts.

  • The NDP vote in Quebec in 2019 fell by 58 per cent from 2015, while increasing very slightly (0.02 per cent) in the rest of country.
  • The NDP lost all but one of the 16 Quebec seats won in 2015, with the Bloc picking up 10 of them.
  • The NDP vote in Quebec dropped by over 621,000 votes while the Bloc vote increased by nearly 559,000.

It is unlikely that the swing to the Bloc was a result of the party’s performance in Ottawa post-2015. Those four years can best be described as a circus of internal division, caucus revolt and the overthrow of a party leader who had been in the job for only 15 months.

But the Bloc managed to put that mess behind it under Blanchet, elected as leader by acclamation in early 2019. One tactic was to downplay separatism and align with the right-of center Legault, promising to support the CAQ government’s efforts to limit immigration and defend Bill 21 against any move by Ottawa to support court challenges to the law. The other stratagem was to remind those who worried about such things that Jagmeet Singh was the embodiment of their fears of the other.

The evidence for that was on display during the French-language leader’s debate on Oct. 2, less than three weeks before the election. In his closing remarks, Blanchet urged Quebec voters to support candidates “qui vous ressemblent” – which translates as “who look like you” or “who are like you.” The party then posted a similar message on Twitter, calling on voters to “choose men and women qui vous ressemblent, who share your values, who carry your preoccupations and who work for your interests, for the interests of Quebecers. Only of Quebecers.”

Does that make Blanchet and the Bloc racists? As the Taylor-Boudreau commission identified, there is “considerable fear among the Québécois that immigration and accommodations were infringing on their values.” The question for politicians is do they try to allay those fears, or stoke them for political advantage? Vaclav Havel, a playwright before he became president of  post-communist Czechoslovakia, said it eloquently.

“It is largely up to the politicians which social forces they choose to liberate and which they choose to suppress, whether they rely on the good in each citizen or on the bad.”

We know what choice the Bloc has made. Blanchet has said he will be looking for a sincere apology from Jagmeet Singh before the NDP leader is allowed to return to the House of Commons when it meets again on July 8. If apologies are in order they should be coming from the Bloc.