Quebec Nationalism - Criticism isn’t bashing, it’s opinion

The complainant, Will Dubitsky, thought characterising the 1995 Quebec referendum as the “abyss of ethnic nationalism” was Quebec-bashing and tarred all Quebec nationalists as xenophobes. It was a passing comment and an opinion expressed in context. One might not like or agree with the sentiment, but it doesn’t cross a policy line.


You objected to several statements made by panelists on the Sunday Talk panel, a regular feature of the Sunday edition of The National. You thought statements made by panelist Jonathan Kay condemned Quebec nationalists and created the impression they were xenophobic and extreme. You particularly objected to a phrase you attributed to him when you thought he had characterized the results of the 1995 Quebec referendum as “the abyss of ethnic nationalism.” You stated this bred hostility and divisiveness:

Jonathan Kay characterized the 1995 referendum results in Quebec as the abyss of ethnic nationalism. This is ignorance on steroids, the main ingredients for bigotry.

The statement was not actually made by Jonathan Kay, but by another panelist, Stephen Marche. Nevertheless, that does not affect your criticism.

You refuted this characterization by pointing out the multicultural nature of Quebec society, and that many prominent politicians were of non-Quebecois background, others were educated abroad and had links to many parts of the world. You said that the PQ (Parti Quebecois) has always been a strong supporter of free trade and a global economy. You added that it was wrong to tar the nationalist position by focusing on a minority who might be xenophobes, and pointed out there were English Quebecers who were equally narrow in their views. There was a second statement that stood out for you. This one is correctly attributed to Mr. Kay:

Jonathan Kay characterizing Quebec nationalism as regionalism is as a convenient pejorative term that could be just as easily be applied to English Canadian nationalism as a regionalism in a North American context.

You also objected to comments made about free trade. You said the panel showed its bias because they seemed surprised that opposition to globalization was coming from the “right” and historically it had been from the “left.” You said that the “left” did not object to free trade, but rather supported “fair trade.”

You expressed overall dissatisfaction with the Sunday Talk panel and the approach of CBC journalism:

On a personal note, the Sunday Talk xenophobia and half truths regarding all that makes Quebec distinct plus the right wing one-sided free trade neurosis of some of the panelists represent only one small minuscule factor of why as an anglo Québecois I prefer to primarily watch Radio-Canada rather than the CBC.


The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He pointed out that Jonathan Kay had not made the statement about an “abyss of ethnic nationalism” you attributed to him. He highlighted the one reference to Quebec that Mr. Kay did make:

He may be right in regards to the United States. The interesting thing about Canada is our two great political neurosis were a fear of the United States, which evaporated in 2008 when the financial crisis devastated them and not us, and regionalism, including Quebec. The high point was 1995. Our two dominant neurosis are completely abated. We are pretty much a country that doesn't have anything to freak out about. We are watching the rest of the world feeling like the world's therapist. It is Justin Trudeau's word.

He added he did not agree that this could be characterized as something that contributed to bigotry.


In order to assess your complaint, it is important to provide the context of the Sunday Talk segment. It was the final session of the season, and came on the heels of the British vote to leave the European Union. The host of the programme, Wendy Mesley, cast a wider net. In the promotion just before the start of the segment she said:

The link between Brexit, Donald Trump and Canada's federal election. It is a Sunday Talk on the big story of our times.

It was a broad ranging discussion. Ms. Mesley set up the panel with this introduction:

Tonight, we look back at a season that tackled one common theme, fear versus unity. A theme highlighted by Britain's decision to leave the European Union. We have seen this polarization play out around the world for the past ten months. We look back at why this happened and where we are headed

After a round up of earlier programs featuring statements from Brexit supporter Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and various Canadian Conservative cabinet ministers during the last election campaign, Ms. Mesley turned to the panel. The discussion was a general one about the mood of the times, using Brexit as an example. As I pointed out at the outset, it was not Mr. Kay who referred to the 1995 Quebec referendum, it was Mr. Marche. It is surprising that Mr. Spandier, the Executive Producer of The National, did not find the phrase in question when reading the transcript or watching the broadcast. Nevertheless, the comment came in a broader discussion of what was different in Canada. Mr. Marche’s thesis was the level of fear and the reason for the vote against EU resided in a fear of immigration:


It is not like they dislike the institutions, they dislike immigrants as such. When you look at Brexit, that tone is pretty clear. That is not -- it is a subtext is really wrong. What we are seeing is an actual distrust of the free movement of people. For that to happen in Britain, sort of the center of free trade. The epitome of the free movement of people. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

The fear of immigrants is a proxy of losing your job to someone overseas, a fear of disruption, a reflection of the fact that wages have been stagnant and are looking for someone to blame. There is a huge phenomena here.

We are not blaming the globalization forces or free markets. They are blaming --

I agree, one of the reasons it is not happening as much in Canada, is the economy is better. There is a safety net. There is less reason for people to freak out and look for escape...

We don't have uncontrolled immigration. We are not near the same scale as anywhere else in the world faces. Also because we had 1995 and looked in the abyss of what ethnic nationalism could have done to our country. This is Britain's version of that except -- (end of quoted transcript)

It is a passing reference to the 1995 referendum. Framing it in this way is not necessarily a condemnation of all Quebec nationalists. I asked Mr. Marche what he was thinking and he was quite clear this is his interpretation of what was driving the desire for independence. He pointed out that in his concession speech Jacques Parizeau, the leader of the Parti Quebecois at the time, blamed the loss on money and the ethnic vote. You noted that Mr. Parizeau later said he regretted saying it, but this was a moment in time. Had this been a discussion about the nature of Quebec nationalism, there might be reason to expect there would be further dialogue. I appreciate that you feel very strongly about this and perceive it as “Quebec bashing”. It is not a characterization that all analysts agree with, but it is one that has been put forward in many contexts. It may not be one you agree with, but it certainly has been a factor. For example, in a 2011 publication, Contemporary Quebec: Selected Readings and Commentaries, edited by Michael D. Behiels and Matthew Hayday, there is a chapter written by Gérard Boismenu entitled Perspectives on Quebec-Canada Relations in the 1990s: Is reconciliation of Ethnicity, Nationality and Citizenship possible?

...a fundamental paradox lies at the root of Quebec’s identity today. The nature of this paradox resides in the need to have a visage français on the one hand, but to ensure it is not reduced solely to ethnicity and nationalism on the other.

There are several comments made by the panelists about Canada, and why it stands out in this international context. There is no criticism of Quebec. Here is an example:

We learned about Canada. The fact that Canada is an exception to this global trend, we have no significant constituency against immigrants or international integration. We have been telling ourselves all our lives that Canada is special. We only have meant it. Now, for the first time in my journalistic career, I can look around and say, in this important way, we actually are special.

You didn't think we were?

I said it. I didn't really mean it. The reason we gave, socialized medicine and multiculturalism. It was government programs. Now we are seeing something that is substantial that pretty much every European country and the United States have juvenile nativist movements which are truly phobic. Canada has no constituency for that. That is amazing.

Turning to the segment on free trade, this is what was said:


That globalization was here to stay and we would see further unification, not just the EU, but international criminal court and other super national organizations. We are seeing push back against globalization. Not from the left which in Canada was the push back against free trade and stuff like that. From the right. People who don't like immigration. People who don't like rules coming down from super national bodies. This is something that 10 or 15 years ago we would not see coming. Again, it was the left that opposed globalization. Now it is the right.

My reading of this does not denote surprise. I am not sure how this proves bias, and while you disagree with the analysis, it does not make it a violation of policy to have it on the program. Again, this was a broad discussion not one about globalization and its opponents. CBC News has covered this issue over many years, and that is where one would find a range of perspectives, as policy dictates. CBC journalistic policy allows for the expression of opinion from commentators, which is the role these panelists play:

Commentators and guests

CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues.

We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.

It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman