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Local candidate Djemila Benhabib stands next to Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois during a news conference Aug.14, 2012, in Trois-Rivières, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Local candidate Djemila Benhabib stands next to Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois during a news conference Aug.14, 2012, in Trois-Rivières, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Antonia Maioni

Saguenay mayor merely a sideshow of Quebec election Add to ...

Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame have arrived, once again, for the mayor of Saguenay, Que., Jean Tremblay. And, one hopes, a day of media attention and Twitter hysteria will be more than enough to exorcise his preposterous statements in the context of Quebec’s election campaign.

In brief, Mr. Tremblay went overboard Wednesday in reaction to a declaration by Parti Québécois candidate Djemila Benhabib, who voiced a personal disagreement with her party’s position that the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly should remain in place, not as a religious symbol, but as a culturally significant artifact.

Mr. Tremblay erupted against her as a foreigner whose name “we can’t even pronounce” and who, he claimed, wanted to impose her alien values on Quebeckers. But the last thing Ms. Benhabib wants to impose is her home country’s value system. An Algerian-raised Quebecker, she is known as an outspoken advocate for the integration of immigrants into the mainstream values of Quebec society.

Indeed, Mr. Tremblay’s outrageous claims were right up there with the near-comical episode of the conduct code in the small town of Hérouxville, near Ms. Benhabib’s riding of Trois-Rivières, and with the mayor’s previous crusade to defend his imposition of a minute of prayer at the start of every council session in Saguenay.

Where does all this come from? One of the effects of Quebec’s commission on reasonable accommodation a few years ago was to position political parties vis-à-vis religious symbols and the state. The Liberals proposed Bill 94, which obliges both civil servants and the public to have their faces uncovered in any official interaction.

The PQ went further, with a charter on secularism for a “neutral” state that would ban civil servants from wearing all obvious religious symbols, such as turbans or hijabs, but making an exception for “discreet” items, such as the crucifix, considered as having cultural rather than religious connotations.

What riles Mr. Tremblay is that Ms. Benhabib feels her party’s proposed charter does not go far enough in ridding the Quebec state of all of its religious symbols, including Christian ones. But the claims that the charter is an electoral ploy to rile the small-minded to vote PQ needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

It is difficult to believe that PQ Leader Pauline Marois would have scripted this issue to play out as it has, because no party leader wants to wade into this much controversy. Having witnessed how Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Québec virtually collapsed in the 2008 election in no small part due to the party’s untenable positions on reasonable accommodation, any party that wants to court the urban and suburban vote would be advised to stay away from the issue. Significant, too, is that neither Liberal Leader Jean Charest nor the Coalition Avenir Québec’s François Legault have turned this into an opportunity to attack Ms. Marois.

Most people see Mr. Tremblay as a talk-radio crank, hardly indicative of a xenophobic wave sweeping through Quebec. One of the best responses has been a video gone viral showing four-year old Cloé pronouncing Ms. Benhabib’s name without any hesitation.

In fact, the more important element in play is not to resurrect the tired question of whether accommodation and secularism are embraced by the majority of Quebeckers, which is evident, but rather whether the PQ’s proposed charter goes too far and risks contravening the religious freedoms accorded in the Quebec and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In that vein, Quebec voters may want to judge the PQ not through the prism of the mayor’s attacks, but rather on whether they have the stomach for another endless constitutional battle on the issue of religious freedom and reasonable accommodation.

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.

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