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Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet comments on the government's fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa on Nov, 30, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Four years ago this week, a disturbed young man walked into a Quebec City mosque and opened fire, killing six people, wounding another eight and forever shattering the blissful innocence of an otherwise peaceful and tolerant community, province and country.

In the immediate aftermath of the slaughter at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, then-premier Philippe Couillard called on the political class to proceed cautiously in the debate over secularism that many felt had unfairly targeted Quebec’s growing Muslim community.

“Words spoken, words written as well, are not trivial,” Mr. Couillard said. “It is up to us to choose them.”

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After all, there is a fine line between defending the secularism of the state – the purported objective of the previous Parti Québécois government’s ill-fated Charter of Quebec Values – and stigmatizing members of a religious minority to win the votes of a nationalist Québécois for whom the protection of their province’s cultural distinctness has been a lifelong preoccupation.

No matter how legitimate the desire of some Quebec politicians to keep religion out of the public sphere – a desire informed by the province’s long struggle to break the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on state institutions – too many of them had succumbed to the temptation of raising the bogeyman of Islamization to win votes among pure laine Quebeckers.

In his infinite smugness, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet continues to demonstrate that he has learned nothing about the dangers of resorting to the kind of demagoguery that Mr. Couillard warned against in the wake of 2017′s fatal events. His refusal this week, of all weeks, to apologize for his smearing of Liberal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra is too serious an infringement of the basic rules of Canadian and Quebec politics to ignore.

Mr. Blanchet embarked on this slippery slope two weeks ago by dredging up old innuendo about Mr. Alghabra’s “proximity” to Islamic extremists in a press release following the Mississauga-Centre MP’s appointment to the federal cabinet. Saying he refused “to accuse anyone,” Mr. Blanchet nevertheless went on to point to “questions” about Mr. Alghabra’s association with “the Islamic political movement, of which he was a leader for several years.”

If there were any doubts about Mr. Alghabra’s alleged coddling of extremists, they were dispelled years ago. Before going into politics, he briefly led a mainstream organization, the Canadian Arab Federation, that, under a subsequent president, veered in a radical direction. Any attempt by Mr. Blanchet to associate Mr. Alghabra with positions taken by the CAF after his stint as president amounts to engaging in guilt by association and, frankly, sleazy politics.

Former PQ leader Jean-François Lisée nevertheless leapt to Mr. Blanchet’s defence, arguing, in a column in Le Devoir, that Mr. Alghabra had demonstrated a “leniency toward [Hamas] that warrants clarification.” Mr. Lisée provided no evidence of said leniency. But then again, what do you expect from a former politician who, in 2016, argued for a ban on burkas in public because terrorists in Africa had “been proven” to hide AK-47s under such clothing.

Mr. Blanchet was given an opportunity this week to withdraw his previous comments and apologize to Mr. Alghabra. He chose to dig himself into an even deeper hole. “The question I raised in an absolutely polite and courteous manner was based on articles in Le Journal de Montréal, Le Journal de Québec and the very torontois and not very indépendantiste Globe and Mail,” he told reporters. “Quebeckers have concerns on questions of secularism and security.”

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The newspaper columns and article Mr. Blanchet referenced only served to prove the baselessness of the “questions” about Mr. Alghabra he sought to raise. Unfortunately, besides a few curious journalists, he knows most people will not bother to check. And in the online echo chamber, where baseless innuendo is the bitcoin of political debate, Mr. Blanchet’s “questions” about an upstanding MP and Liberal cabinet minister take on a life of their own.

It is no mystery why the Bloc Leader resorted to smearing Mr. Alghabra as his party prepares to defend a slew of narrowly-won ridings in a federal election expected later this year. The Bloc, which remains nominally supportive of Quebec independence, portrays Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and their devotion to multiculturalism as a threat to Quebec’s cultural survival. Raising doubts about Mr. Alghabra’s political views serves to plant the seeds of fear and intolerance among a subset of Quebec voters for whom the details do not matter much.

While it is quite legitimate to bemoan the excesses of Liberal multiculturalism – epitomized by Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 inanity about Canada having no core identity – it is quite another to seek to scapegoat religious minorities for political purposes. Mr. Blanchet crossed the line. That he did so on the eve of such a painful anniversary for Quebec’s Muslims says quite a lot about him.

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