It may have seemed like a good idea in our new, culturally sensitive times: a ban on Christmas decorations at federal government buildings.
But a senior manager’s directive to banish tinsel, trees and holiday wreaths from front-line Service Canada offices across Quebec came undone Friday as fast as gift wrap on Christmas morning.
By afternoon, the ban had been reversed by a federal minister who reassured Canadians that the Harper government did, in fact, like Christmas.
The backpedalling capped a day of denunciations, after the Quebec chief of Service Canada sent e-mails to employees telling them they could hang holiday decorations in their personal spaces, but not in areas serving the public.
Within hours, the ban at about 120 federal offices in the province had been ridiculed on Twitter, derided on open-line shows, and criticized by the very religious minorities whose sensibilities the government was ostensibly trying to respect.
The storm reached the House of Commons, where opposition MPs from Quebec seized on the matter.
“Why do the Conservatives want to steal the magic of Christmas from employees of Service Canada?” said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said there was no Canada-wide directive against Yuletide decor. By the end of the day, she issued a statement that she was asking Service Canada to send a new directive to employees telling them they can “celebrate Christmas or the holidays as they please. This includes decorations in Service Canada offices across Canada.”
The move makes Santa safe for another year. Beyond the rhetoric, however, the measure struck a chord about cultural and religious displays in the public realm, a controversial issue in Quebec. The anti-decoration rule had already taken hold at Ottawa’s major front-line services building in Montreal, the Guy Favreau complex. There was not a shred of holiday decor in the cavernous downtown building.
The union representing Service Canada employees in Quebec initially supported the ban, but retreated by the end of the day.
“It’s absurd,” said Sylvain Archambault, a spokesman for the Canada Employment and Immigration Union. “But we have trouble in Quebec with handling Christmas. As a society, we’re struggling to figure out how to deal with reasonable accommodations [of minorities]”
Mr. Archambault said the measure was meant to keep decorations out of unemployment insurance offices. “We’re not supposed to look festive while you’re waiting for your UI cheque,” he said.
Religious minorities, meanwhile, lined up against the ban. Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said he enjoys seeing Christmas lights and other decorations.
“I guarantee you, for most Muslims this is a non-issue,” he said. “I’m not offended by these decorations at all. They remind us of the spirit of giving.”
Others denounced the measure as another federal offensive by the Tories that would rub Quebeckers the wrong way. One person on Twitter wrote: “Portraits of the Queen everywhere, but no Christmas trees??!!”
With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa