For eight seasons, Saku Koivu has admirably served as captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He bravely fought back from a struggle with cancer; later, an errant high stick cost him some of the vision in his left eye. He has nevertheless remained an elite player on the ice and an inspirational leader for his team. Yet this week, Mr. Koivu became the latest target of the bizarre spectacle that Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission on “reasonable accommodation” has become. Appearing before it in Quebec City, sovereigntist lawyer Guy Bertrand attacked the Finnish-born captain for his lack of fluency in French. This alleged failing “demonstrates contempt for our language,” Mr. Bertrand charged. “It is not respectful.”
Mr. Bertrand's complaint had been roundly mocked, and rightly so. Mr. Koivu is an athlete, not an academic, and deriding him for failing to master both English (which he needs to communicate with his teammates) and French is absurd. But it was not the most laughable complaint brought before the commission this week. That honour went to a man named Georges Filiatreault, who launched into a conspiracy theory about peanut butter costing more money because it is kosher.
All public forums will attract a few zealots. But while Messrs. Bertrand and Filiatreault went further than most others, their comments were not out of keeping with much of what the commission has heard. At one hearing, Hérouxville councillor André Drouin – an author of that town's infamous “code of conduct,” which helped kick-start the provincewide debate on “reasonable accommodation” of minority groups – suggested that global warming would soon cause his mostly immigrant-free town to be overrun with Muslims. Elsewhere, it has been said that minorities will soon become Quebec's majority, that immigrants should be forced to settle outside Montreal, and that Islam is a “retrograde religion.” No wonder commissioners Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor have occasionally grown testy.
But perhaps there is an upside to this unpleasant display. The more that Quebeckers and other Canadians are exposed to the ignorance that has helped fuel the “reasonable accommodation” debate, the more likely they will be to reject a dramatic shift away from the country's tolerant approach toward newcomers.
This week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest – who had attempted to mollify the Hérouxville crowd by calling the commission in the first place – wrote an open letter to Quebeckers cautioning that the province is putting its reputation for tolerance at risk. Meanwhile, a new poll shows that Mr. Charest's Liberals – the party least inclined to exploit nationalist fears of newcomers – has surpassed Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec, which rode “reasonable accommodation” to electoral success earlier this year. Perhaps Quebeckers are seeing this debate for what it is.