Charest blows hot and cold on reasonable accommodation

While view of other leaders is clear, premier wavers on the issue

Immigration - une politique ou de la politicaillerie ?

Of the leaders of the three parties in the National Assembly, the only one who seems uncertain about how to handle the most delicate issue in Quebec politics is the premier.
Mario Dumont now is so identified in the public mind with the defence of Quebec's identity against the "reasonable accommodation" of non-Christian religious practices that the leader of Action démocratique du Québec hardly needs to say anything more on the subject.
Pauline Marois needs to catch up with Dumont, who has made ethnic nationalism respectable again, which is why the new leader of the Parti Québécois recently exhorted party members to stop being "afraid to seem intolerant."

But for Jean Charest, leader of the only party with significant support among ethnic minorities but which needs to win back francophone support from the ADQ, it's more complicated.
And so Charest has wavered back and forth, between blurring the distinction between his position and Dumont's and sharpening it, between following public opinion and trying to lead it (the latter task especially difficult for an already unpopular leader).
In announcing the creation of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on the subject in February, just before calling the March 26 election and with ADQ support surging because of the accommodation issue, the premier spoke of the responsibilities that immigrants and Quebec have toward each other.
But his emphasis was on the former, and he criticized as unreasonable all the reported examples of accommodations that he mentioned.
It sounded as though he was moving his position closer to Dumont's, as he had done with success in response to a sudden, pre-election wave of ADQ popularity in the fall of 2002.
But within two weeks, Charest was separating himself from Dumont again. He presented the coming election as a choice between his party, which would keep Quebecers united, and two adversaries that would divide people - the PQ along constitutional lines, and the ADQ along ethnic ones.
After the election, in which the Liberals lost francophone support to the ADQ and were reduced to a minority government as a result, Charest changed his tone again. In his address at the opening of the legislature in May, the premier lectured immigrants on their obligations in even stronger terms than he had in February.
He went so far as to imply the majority needed protection against minorities. "Our charters have always aimed to protect minorities against abuses by the majority," he said. "They were never designed to allow the contrary."
And he said his government would not wait for the recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, due next March 31, to "reinforce the message delivered to each immigrant that our fundamental values are not negotiable."
But at the annual Liberal youth convention on the weekend, before an audience containing more visible minorities than one usually sees at meetings of Quebec parties, he spoke not of protecting some Quebecers against others, but rather of unity.
"If we want to strengthen Quebec's identity, we have to associate with it as many people as possible," he said. And, in the tone of one relating a profound insight, he quoted a postcard he had seen in Europe explaining why it's wrong to consider a neighbour a foreigner.
(In another gesture toward minorities, Charest also spoke briefly in English three times in his 30-minute speech, which is twice more than usual.)
And asked by journalists afterward about his minister Benoît Pelletier's remark that Dumont's vision of Quebec nationhood is "too ethnic," Charest responded by noting the ADQ leader had said the province has reached the limit of its capacity to receive immigrants.
When Charest first entered Quebec politics in 1998, his grasp of provincial issues was so unsure that it was said if you didn't like a position he took, you merely had to wait 48 hours for him to abandon it. Now, on the accommodation question, he seems as unsure of himself as he did as a rookie.

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