It isn't often that the House of Commons sees fit to officially censure the media. It's bad enough that our politicians aren't eager to talk about corruption in Quebec, but what grates is that they don't want anyone else to talk about it, either.
Maclean's magazine recently published a cover story calling Quebec "the most corrupt province in Canada." As the magazine's editors have acknowledged, that contention can only be definitively proven with a statistical analysis, perhaps something akin to the country-level analyses carried out by Transparency International. But the article makes a solid prima facie case.
Whether you agree or disagree with the provocative headline or cover photo, the article can't be construed as hate literature or any other category of expression that might merit the attention of Parliament. It's a political analysis that raises important questions. In an accompanying column, Andrew Coyne summed it up: "Sponsorships, Shawinigate, the ghostly voters of the Gaspésie, Airbus: there's a pattern here, and it's useless to deny it." But, as politicians of all stripes have made clear, there are some questions that mustn't be asked -- some patterns that must go unnoticed.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest sent a letter denouncing those who promote "a simplistic and offensive thesis that Québecers are genetically incapable of acting with integrity." No one is saying anything of the kind. Rather, political observers are simply identifying factors that could create the conditions for scandals, including the tactics employed by separatist and federalist politicians. But by playing the "genetic" card, Charest cannily pushed the topic into taboo territory. He made it about Quebecers themselves -- and more specifically, about ethnicity -- when no one else did.
The House of Commons followed Charest's lead, passing a motion to express "its profound sadness at the prejudice displayed and the stereotypes employed by Maclean's magazine to denigrate the Quebec nation, its history and its institutions." This was passed without a vote being called. It passed by unanimous consent -- but only after the independent and principled Quebec MP André Arthur, who objected, was heckled and left the chamber.
We hope the other MPs present, who did not object, at least take the time to read the media they denounce.
Now, it's true that politicians, like all Canadians, are entitled to express their opinions. The Citizen has received its fair share of angry letters-to-the-editor from disgruntled cabinet ministers -- and that's just fine. Of course, in a democracy less robust than Canada's, an official slap on the wrist from Parliament might be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the press. But Canada's journalists don't intimidate easily. Still, the parliamentary motion is unsettling, because -- like Charest's letter -- it reframes the debate so that anyone who dares criticize a politician in Quebec can be called a bigot. In a country that prides itself on celebrating diversity, there are few epithets more damaging.
Charest is demanding an apology to Quebecers. Quebecers do indeed deserve an apology -- not from journalists but from politicians of the right and the left, politicians from federalist and separatist camps, politicians from Quebec and from the rest of Canada, none of whom want to talk about this issue. If they really respected the voters of Quebec, they'd be eager to root out corruption and put an end to naked attempts to buy support in the unity wars.
Instead, the political establishment is seizing on what it sees as one more opportunity to patronize Quebec voters -- and also to insult their intelligence and take their complacency for granted.