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Jason Kenney revealed Tuesday how Ottawa intends to handle the question of the Parti Québécois's proposed charter of values: carefully, carefully.
There are manifold pitfalls in confronting this latest challenge from the separatist government. Miscalculation could engulf the Conservatives' agenda, alienate its base, anger immigrant voters, and strangle nascent hopes for a modest Tory recovery in Quebec.
And then there's the question of doing the right thing.
The Conservative response is to speak softly and threaten a big stick.
As the Multiculturalism Minister told reporters, "the separatist government in Quebec would like to pick a fight with the federal government at any time on any issue," something that the Harper government has largely managed to avoid up until now. Incendiary language from the Conservatives would do more harm than good, and Mr. Kenney avoided any.
But there is an impossible circle to square. A great many Quebeckers believe that immigrants – especially Muslim immigrants from French-speaking Africa – are failing to integrate into their culture. They support the proposed charter, which would ban the wearing of most religious symbols on anyone working in the broader public sector.
There are doubtless many English Canadians, especially those who don't live in the big urban areas, who also chafe at the impact of immigration on the old verities of the settler culture. They tend to vote Conservative.
But there are also millions of immigrants living in and around Toronto, Vancouver and other large English-Canadian cities, and many of them also vote Conservative. They have every right to be offended that Quebec is contemplating laws that would stigmatize non-Christian religions while exempting Christian symbols such as the crucifix in the National Assembly and Christmas trees in schools or government offices.
"It's an Pandora's box," acknowledged the political scientist Antonia Maioni, of McGill University.
How is Stephen Harper trying to keep a lid on that box?
"He's showing a lot of muscle, but he's hedging his bets along the line," Prof. Maioni observed.
If a bill actually gets tabled and if it passes the National Assembly, then the Department of Justice will examine the law – and if the government lawyers conclude that the Quebec charter conflicts with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then "we would challenge any law that we deem…violates the fundamental constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion," Mr. Kenney said.
Yes, there are many ifs and thens there. But the federal government doesn't want to get drawn prematurely into a major fight with the Quebec government over a charter that may be heavily amended or that may even be defeated in the National Assembly.
It especially doesn't want religion in Quebec to become a national flashpoint that could derail the Conservatives' single-minded devotion to making the economy Issue No. 1.
And the party is looking for a narrative (economic competence, respect for provincial jurisdiction, that sort of thing) that will protect their few remaining assets in Quebec and perhaps even grow them a little.
But if that bill does make it through the National Assembly more or less intact, then Ottawa will mount a legal challenge to the law. This would be remarkable. The federal government didn't challenge the legality of Bill 101 – the French language charter – when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, leaving it for private citizens to do the heavy lifting.
But the Conservatives are warning of a government-to-government fight in the Supreme Court if the PQ doesn't back down.
The Tories at least don't have to worry about their flank on this. Justin Trudeau repeated the Liberals' strong condemnation of the charter, Tuesday.
Thomas Mulcair had said he wanted to see what was in the proposal rather than commenting on press leaks. The NDP is in a difficult position; many of the party's Quebec MPs represent hinterland regions of Quebec where support for the charter is robust.
But once the charter's full dimensions were on display Tuesday, Mr. Mulcair came out four-square against it, calling the proposal "state-mandated discrimination."
Even the Bloc Québécois thinks the PQ may have gone a bit far.
But it is the Conservatives who govern. They clearly hope that the charter will be watered down or defeated, sparing them this trial.
If the law does pass, however, Ottawa will see Quebec City in court. And that won't be pretty at all.
John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.