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Quebec Minister for International Relations and Montreal, Jean-Francois Lisee, speaks to reporters at a news conference about the government's proposed Charter of Values Tuesday, September 17, 2013 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Even well-designed policies bring unintended consequences, but an ill-reasoned policy is worse.

The Parti Québécois's Charter of Values has provided an unfortunate opening for those who wish to express deep-seated religious intolerance and xenophobia. There are legitimate grounds for trying to define the place of religion in the public sphere, but some of the discussion over the charter has become overheated.

Quebec's minority government was right to appeal for calm this week. The PQ also deserves credit for swiftly denouncing recent incidents such as one in which a middle-aged, white male passenger on a Montreal city bus shouted abuse at a hijab-wearing woman. The incident was captured on video. International Relations Minister Jean-François Lisée, the political minister for Montreal, called it "disgusting."

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Distinguishing between causality and correlation in such instances – and others, like the spilling of pig's blood on the steps of a mosque in Saguenay – isn't always easy. But it's fair to say that the fevered environment created by the proposed charter emboldens those who harbour hateful sentiments towards immigrants and minorities.

Quebec is not a more racist or xenophobic place than anywhere else in Canada – indeed, the most recent Statistics Canada figures on hate crimes show the police-reported incidence of religious and racially motivated crime is well below the national average.

But there seems to be a cultural peculiarity in Quebec, one that became apparent during the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission hearings on "reasonable accommodation": candour. Quite a few people wear their prejudices on their sleeves, and are unafraid to voice unpopular sentiments on sensitive topics such as immigration and integration.

There is no less social opprobrium towards such beliefs in Quebec than elsewhere, but recent history suggests they tend to be expressed more often. It's incumbent on those who initiate such debates to ensure they don't enable hate speech or activate some of the darker impulses of human nature.

The PQ has a serious duty to deal concretely and conclusively with the unintended but predictable consequences of an argument it so badly wanted to have.

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