A trio of editorial cartoons in Quebec newspapers lampooning a political leader has raised eyebrows among the province's Jewish community over the cartoonists' use of inappropriate stereotypes that conjure up memories of anti-Semitic propaganda.
But the controversy speaks to something larger taking place in Quebec these days: perpetual soul-searching over national identity that has shifted focus from language to ethnicity.
The questionable [caricatures->mot1232] parody Mario Dumont's efforts to reach out to the province's Jewish establishment since becoming leader of the Official Opposition in the last election.
In La Presse, Serge Chapleau depicted the Action Democratique du Quebec leader grinning toothily sporting ear locks and an oversized black fur hat exclaiming: "Next week I'll be courted by nude cyclists," while in Le Devoir, Garnotte drew Mr. Dumont wearing a T-shirt with a big seal of approval, proclaiming himself "certified kosher."
Eliciting the most concern was a cartoon in Sherbrooke's La Tribune by Herve Philippe showing Mr. Dumont with dollar signs in his eyes greeting a pair of apparently Jewish businessmen with large noses, curled hair locks and kippas.
"Welcome my friend$" read the caption bubble, all the Ss changed to $.
Some of what passes for mainstream humour in Quebec these days would likely be considered taboo elsewhere, said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies.
While the political correctness movement in the rest of North America seeks to downplay difference, in Quebec it is commonplace -- and not necessarily offensive -- to remark on distinguishing features.
"It's a different kind of political correctness," he said, while pointing out the line still all too frequently gets crossed. "There are fewer holds barred when it comes to this sort of stuff. Ethnicity in Quebec is a lot stronger marker of people's identity."
Quebec is also in the midst of a broad social debate on what concessions the francophone majority should make for ethnic and religious minorities.
In defining what constitutes "reasonable accommodation," a small town northeast of Montreal took the bizarre and unnecessary step of banning head-coverings and wife burning in a code of conduct apparently aimed at Muslims.
A YMCA in a diverse Montreal neighboorhood frosted its windows to avoid the sight of spandex-clad women distracting Hassidic boys nearby, then reversed its decision to avoid kow-towing.
Most recently a TV investigative program revealed that consumers may be "subsidizing" kosher-certified products sold at major grocery chains -- a line of argument that has been advanced by white supremacists in the United States.
Prof. Jedwab said what he calls the "accommodation police" have been out in force as the hand-wringing over what's reasonable has intensified.
"The people who were very mobilized about five, six years ago about language, looking at the size of lettering on signs and complaining about too much English being spoken, have moved on to this issue," he said. "There is this whole group of Quebecers who are very committed and working towards inclusion ... Then there's this other side that is much more preoccupied with a form of ethnic nationalism and are very often in a state of self-denial about the extent to which they are preoccupied with that brand of identity."
After the cartoon in La Tribune was published, Victor Goldbloom, the president of the Quebec branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wrote a letter of complaint that was published in the newspaper, and he has a meeting scheduled with the editor.
While he does not believe it was a blatant anti-Semitic attack, he said its portrayal of all Jews as ultra-orthodox and rich is problematic. "Our analysis of these cartoons and very particularly the one in La Tribune, led us to the conclusion that none of these cartoonists were being anti-Semitic," he said. "We felt the cartoon in La Tribune was in less than good taste and gave a very unfortunate picture of the community ... Unlike the other two, it focuses exclusively on financial support as being the only reason for a political leader's contact with anyone identified as Jewish."
Frank Dimant, the vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada, also sent an outraged letter to La Presse. He denounced as "hateful" the insinuation that Mr. Dumont's meeting with community leaders transformed him into a "Hassidic Jew of swarthy complexion, with a convulsive laugh and a deranged mind."
In a rebuttal, La Presse's chief editorial writer, Andre Pratte, said B'nai Brith was perhaps reading too much into the image and pointed out the cartoon intended to mock Mr. Dumont, not Jewish people.
He noted the newspaper has a record of "vigorously defending" the Jewish community.
"There is no question of apologizing for an offence we didn't commit," wrote Mr. Pratte. "Rather it is B'nai Brith who should apologize for bringing such serious and unfounded accusations against La Presse and Serge Chapleau."
Dr. Goldbloom said the debate about reasonable accommodation is much more pronounced in Quebec than in any other Canadian province.
While public discussion means Quebec is addressing issues that are bound by taboos elsewhere, it has also sometimes resulted in a hypersensitive climate where every perceived accommodation is scrutinized and criticism over inclusiveness is met with thin-skinned defensiveness.
"It's a debate that has become a little unrealistic because there are situations where accommodation is made not on the basis of public policy, but simply on the basis of two individuals or two groups or two institutions," Dr. Goldbloom said.
Quebec cartoons hit ethnicity nerve
A SOCIAL DEBATE; Jewish groups say caricatures 'in less than good taste'