The prime minister dipped a tentative toe in the rocky waters of Quebec identity politics. And an opposition leader who wants to replace him dove right in.
It was a tale of two reactions, featuring Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, as the leaders each made headline-grabbing remarks about the controversial Charter of Quebec Values on Thursday.
And they could hardly have been more different.
Harper treaded warily.
He promised to keep an eye on the eventual policy, to ensure minority rights were protected. But in the meantime, he cited two reasons for withholding comment.
The prime minister said he wanted to wait because the Parti Quebecois government had not even made its plan public yet and isn’t expected to do so for two weeks.
He also expressed concern about getting sucked into a political undercurrent.
“We know that the separatist government in Quebec would love to pick fights with Ottawa,” Harper told a Toronto news conference.
“But that’s not our business. Our business is the economy. Our business is job-creation for Canadians — all Canadians, including Quebecers.”
In the next breath, though, he added that the federal government also has a responsibility to minorities and he intends to live up to it.
He is the last major federal leader to comment on the issue, which has raged in recent days. Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have each criticized the PQ idea more than once.
A leaked copy of the plan suggests the PQ wants to restrict public employees from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, kippas, hijabs and visible crosses.
Trudeau, apparently, has heard enough.
In his latest remarks attacking the plan, the Liberal leader used the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to lambaste the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.
He appeared to draw parallels between the PQ policy and segregation.
And thus began the latest chapter in the long, acrimonious history between the Parti Quebecois and federal Liberal leaders named Trudeau.
“Oh, my God,” said Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, when asked for a reaction Thursday.
“I think he should make a little bit of an effort to elevate the debate — instead of lowering it. I don’t think it is helpful to get into this line of argument. I think we should try to have this debate in a respectful manner — even if we disagree sometimes.
“There’s a little bit of contempt in that and I don’t think it helps the debate.”
Premier Pauline Marois echoed the sentiment: “I don’t want to judge him by his comments, but it’s evident that his comments are not an invitation to calm, (they) don’t invite serenity, but rather throw oil on the fire.”
At a partisan rally the previous night, Trudeau said that 50 years after King fought against the notion of second-class citizens, there are still people in Quebec who would reduce others’ rights.
Trudeau said: “These days, when you reflect on the 50th anniversary of that magnificent speech by Dr. King, who was fighting segregation, who was fighting discrimination, who was rejecting the notion that there are second-class citizens, you see that unfortunately even today, when we’re talking, for instance, about this idea of a charter of Quebec values, that there are still people who believe you must choose between your religion and Quebecois identity, that there are people forced by the state in Quebec to make irresponsible and inconceivable choices.”
Pequistes fumed at the accusation of intolerance.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier described King as an inspiration to the PQ, as well. Trudeau, on the other hand, appeared only to inspire his frustration.
“I don’t think Mr. Trudeau has any lessons to give to Quebecers,” Cloutier said.
Polls suggest the charter idea is popular in Quebec — although it’s unclear how high of a priority it is for voters there.
Quebecers have also told pollsters they’re interested in many other issues, such as economic ones, above the charter idea.