Premier Jean Charest set up the Bouchard-Taylor commission during last year's election campaign with two goals in mind: tabling the issue so he could get re-elected and, in the slightly longer term, defusing the issue responsibly.
We know the outcome: Charest is heading the first minority government in Quebec since 1878, and we are drowning under the spite some Quebecers feel free to voice.
The commission, with hearings continuing until the end of November, has provided a widely publicized forum for unqualified bigotry and misinformation, leavened by the occasional informed and reasonable voice.
After two months of this, the premier finally tried to exert some leadership. Yesterday Charest published an open letter to his fellow citizens in newspapers, including The Gazette. He urged restraint, warning that the tone of the debate is damaging our reputation. He got that right.
The premier's message, which could have taken an above-the-fray tone of leadership, instead chose a partisan approach. Charest accused Mario Dumont, leader of the Action démocratique du Québec, of fanning the flames of intolerance by suggesting that Quebec is being over-run by immigrants. But Charest's real target of was Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, and her draft legislation on Quebec identity.
Marois, Charest said, has added to an already charged atmosphere by creating a linguistic crisis on top of the uproar about reasonable accommodation.
While accurate in his assessment of his two rivals' contribution to an increasingly xenophobic discourse, Charest slid over his own role.
He was leading a majority government when some media began to beat the drum against almost any kind of accommodation to Quebec's most recent immigrant group, Muslims. Charest should have tackled the issue head-on then, setting out for Quebecers broad principles.
He did redeem himself somewhat in this week's text by appealing to the openness and tolerance of Quebecers. Better late than not at all.
In creating the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, Charest itemized his proper parameters for this discussion: the equality of men and women, the primacy of French, and the separation of state and religion.
But that was last year. This year, under increasing political pressure, Charest has decided that not all rights are equal. At the top is gender equality which, once the Liberals amend Quebec's rights charter, will somehow trump the right to religious freedom.
This ignores basic principles of human rights law, in which rights are not hierarchical. When rights clash, each case should be considered on its merits.
After hearings weeks of angry talk before the Bouchard-Taylor commission, newcomers to Quebec might suspect that they made a poor choice. One of the most important functions of government is to make all citizens feel that they belong. Not one of our leaders seems to be up to that job.