Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

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Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet claims that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership campaign signifies we must now confront not only the obscurantist, anti-science and anti-women’s-rights religious right, but also the new and scary religious left.

Ouellet has not said what policies or values of this new political force she finds to be objectionable.

It is, however, impossible that the Bloc leader and former Parti Québécois cabinet minister does not know Jagmeet Singh is entirely in favour of the separation of church and state, ardently believes in a woman’s right to choose, wants the Canadian government to heed the science and do a lot more about climate change, and does not, in any way, subscribe to the view that the sinful poor are the authors of their own misfortune.  

At heart, what bothers Ouellet is not what Singh believes or advocates. It is the way he dresses.

If the young NDP leadership candidate dressed in regular, western street clothes, but was a devout follower of some obscure cult, Ouellet would be okay with that. It is the public and external sartorial expression of Singh’s faith and tradition that bothers Ouellet.

The crucifix that still hangs in Quebec’s National Assembly is merely a cultural artifact, which does not alter Quebec’s secular character. It certainly does not seem to upset Martine Ouellet, who was a member of that body for many years. Neither does the enormous cross atop Montreal’s Mount Royal, which lights up the city’s sky at night.

Those visible religious symbols are, apparently, mere vestiges of Quebec’s Roman Catholic history and tradition, and do not mean Quebeckers who practice other religions, or none at all, should feel uncomfortable.

A weapon for Quebec bashers

Ouellet and others, including NDP MP Pierre Nantel, who are obsessing about Singh’s outward appearance have launched a distressing, depressing and entirely redundant exercise. What is perhaps most distressing is the license this exercise gives to some smug non-Quebeckers to label all Quebeckers as intolerant, xenophobic and bigoted.  

Graeme Hamilton’s piece in the National Post on Wednesday comes close to doing that.

This writer is a proud Quebecker, although he lives, for the time-being, in Ottawa. His experience with the people of Quebec is that they are, on the whole, curious, globally minded, friendly and welcoming. They are not xenophobes. They are not bigots.

Quebeckers do not, as a matter of course, distrust outward manifestations of difference. In fact, a good many of them consider themselves to be citizens of the world — to a greater extent, one could argue, than do other Canadians. To cite just one example: proportionately, many more Quebeckers volunteer to do service overseas in the developing world than do other Canadians. 

In that light, it is more than sad that too many Quebec politicians believe they succeed best only when they appeal to voters’ darker angels, to their inchoate, and, at base, irrational fears and suspicions, rather than to their reason and curiosity.

In picking on Jagmeet Singh’s appearance Martine Ouellet is trying the same tactic that some in her party may believe helped them win 10 seats in 2015 compared to a mere four in 2011.

In fact, in popular vote terms, the Bloc lost support last time, dropping from six per cent to below five per cent. But the party’s campaign based on fear of women who choose to wear the niqab — epitomized by an odious television commercial in which a black, toxic oil spill transforms into an animated version of a women in black face-covering — probably helped the Bloc win a handful of seats.  

It worked once, Ouellet might reason, so it might work again.

Awkward timing for the NDP

Quebec’s Liberal premier Philippe Couillard has muddied the waters by introducing legislation, Bill 62, which would ban people who wear face coverings from either dispensing or receiving government services.

When it comes to working in a front-line role one might understand the notion that people are not accustomed to being served by someone with a covered face. However, for those receiving services, the legislation seems like more than overkill. Even if one accepted that, at times, it is necessary to see a person’s face in order to verify her identity, there could be administrative ways to achieve that. Why grandstand with legislation?

Bill 62, like Parti Québécois’ ill-fated secular values charter, is nothing so much as a solution in search of a problem. There is never a good time to deal with such an initiative, but for an NDP which is in the process of selecting a new leader, this debate comes at a particularly awkward time.   

NDP candidates, including Singh, might want to try to reason with Ouellet and others who share her view. They could start by asking: what would your reaction be to a political candidate who dressed in traditional Indigenous clothing?

Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...