Talking about Quebec's proposed Charter raises sensitive issues

The complainant, Ghislain Otis, felt that remarks made about a “certain aspect of racism and otherness in the Quebecois culture” discriminated against him and all Quebecois. The remarks were made in the context of a panel discussion about the Quebec Charter of Values. CBC policy discourages stereotyping but I found in the context of the broader discussion, an audience member would not take the remark as a blanket statement about all members of Quebec society.

COMPLAINT

Every Sunday on The National, the “3 to Watch” panel analyzes and discusses three stories that are likely to capture the news agenda in the week ahead. On September 8, the panel discussed the imminent release of the Quebec Charter of Values. Although the Parti Quebecois had not yet officially unveiled it in the National Assembly, there was already quite a buzz over leaked details. The Charter seeks to separate religion from the public sphere by banning the wearing of turbans, hijabs, burkas, kippas and large crosses by public employees, including day care workers, hospital workers, teachers and civil servants. The Charter was officially released on September 10th.

Program anchor Wendy Mesley set up the discussion by recapping events so far – with clips from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and from Justin Trudeau reacting to the provisions of the proposed Charter. Mesley added: “The move is popular among many Quebeckers, but now a backlash is growing in and outside of Quebec.” Her first question to panelist John Moore, who is a host on a Toronto radio station was “So John, is this about ideology? Or wedge politics? Or both?” It was his answer to this question that you objected to, characterizing it as discriminatory.

Here is his answer:

“I think it is about a phenomenon that is perhaps a bit more accented in Quebec, but exists everywhere else. I mean, if you look at the numbers, 43% of Canadians support this initiative. At its core – and I’m not going to win any popularity contest in saying it, I’m a born and bred Quebecer who said in the pages of the National Post that I consider myself to be a Quebecois – I find this embarrassing because there is a certain aspect of racism and fear of otherness in the Quebecois culture.”

You wrote that:

This assertion is prejudiced and discriminatory as it ascribes to a whole cultural group attitudes and beliefs that are overtly portrayed as highly undesirable. I belong to the Québécois culture and so do my family and my relations. We have been stigmatised by this comment solely on the basis of our cultural identity. Such a statement is likely to bring me, my family, my relations and my whole community into disrepute in the eyes of non-Québécois Canadians and the world.”

You were also concerned that none of the other panelists nor the anchor “qualified or challenged this assertion.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, Executive Producer of the National, replied, stating that “I certainly regret that you took umbrage at Mr. Moore’s remarks. I can assure you that he did not intend to offend you or any of our other viewers.”

He explained that this was Mr. Moore’s opinion, not that of CBC or The National. He pointed out that Mr. Moore did provide context, saying this kind of racism and fear of otherness is widespread, not only among Quebecois. He added that it was clear that Mr. Moore was not referring to all Quebecois, and that in fact “there is some evidence that there are those in Quebec who can be fairly described as holding such views, just as there are in other provinces.” He pointed out Justin Trudeau had stated that the charter was motivated by a “defensive fear of others.”

REVIEW

I acknowledge that you feel that you have been disrespected by the characterization used by Mr. Moore. Any generalization runs the risk of stereotyping or over-stating the point. CBC Journalistic policy attempts to deal with this in its Language policy on “respect and absence of prejudice.” In part it states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.”

While Mr. Moore offered an opinion that the attitude “a fear of otherness” is embedded in Quebecois culture, he provided some context. He noted first that they are by no means alone, and that 43% of Canadians outside Quebec also supported the initiative. He then referred to Quebec. Clearly there are people in the province who believe the Charter is a good thing. The government of the province has a particular vision of the society it wishes to create. The Charter is controversial. It raises questions about freedom of expression and inclusiveness, about a desire to protect cultural norms, and to keep religion out of the public space. It is important to be able to have that discussion in as free and open a way as possible.

Because of the issues it raises, the conversation about what it means and what is the motivation behind it is a difficult and sensitive one. Mr. Moore acknowledged he was treading in dangerous territory when he made his remarks. He made an observation about what he thinks may be behind the support for the Charter. It seems reasonably clear to me he was not referring to “a whole culture” and was not implying that every single Quebecois thinks as a collective.

At the outset of the panel discussion Ms. Mesley referred to a backlash in the province. Later on in the discussion, another panelist, Jonathan Kay, talked about the range of response to Bill 14, which deals with language and business in the province. He pointed out that the nationalist movement is not a monolith. One was not left with the impression, in the context of the discussion, that all Quebecois are being painted with the same brush.

You point out that “the test of discrimination is not based on intent but on the effect of somebody’s words or actions.” The effect of his words on you was hurtful. That is not in dispute. What is far less clear is that it had the broader effect of discriminating against an entire group of people, bringing them all into disrepute. I think it clumsily raised some questions, but given the need for freedom of speech and openness, and the broader context of the discussion, it did not fail CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman