THE PROVINCE must not allow fear and intolerance to triumph, premier says - Quebecers must remain open

JEAN CHAREST

...........................................

People in the rest of Canada, in the United States and in France are wondering what's going on in Quebec, where we've earned a reputation for openness and tolerance. People are wondering what's happening here at a time when we need to open our doors to others because we're short of workers, because some of our regions are in a demographic decline, and because we're having fewer children.

In Quebec, our tradition has always been one of protecting minorities and of openness to others. We are ourselves a minority in North America.

In Pauline Marois's draft legislation regarding a Quebec identity, I don't recognize the confident Quebec that has conquered the world. Her bill does not express what we have become as a society: generous, proud, firmly attached to the principle of equality.

I can see only a withdrawal from the profoundly democratic nation we have built. Rather than flog a dead horse, Marois should abandon this bad idea.

We are in the middle of a debate in Quebec. That should not be downplayed. But we should all work to carry it out with respect and reason. On that note, irresponsible actions were committed well before Marois's unfortunate bill. Let's look back at the events to see a little more clearly.

Last winter, the media reported that the YWCA in Outremont had been asked to frost its windows so students at a neighbouring college would not see women exercising. In the ensuing weeks, certain media feasted on various accommodation requests.

The leader of the ADQ, sensing which way the wind was blowing, encouraged Quebecers to "raise their chins," a thinly veiled suggestion to look down upon others (immigrants). The echo came from Hérouxville with its "code de vie."

Beyond this lack of judgment, the acts revealed a real malaise. Accommodations, although they were being reported with sensationalism, were clashing with a certain idea of life in Quebec.

It was important to me that the debate take place under the best possible conditions. That's why I asked two distinguished intellectuals, who are renowned internationally, to consult with Quebecers and allow us to have a better understanding of this debate.

Grard Bouchard (left) and Charles Taylor are on the road, listening to Quebecers.When creating the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, I set the parameters of the discussion with these words: "Quebec is a nation. By its history, its language, its culture, its territory, its institutions. The Quebec nation has values: the equality of women and men, the primacy of French, the separation of state and religion. These values are fundamental. They come with Quebec. They cannot be subject to reasonable accommodations."

In an ill-considered statement, which seems to be his forte, the new leader of the official opposition, who first fanned the flames of intolerance, suggested that Quebec is receiving enough immigrants. It would have been very easy to check the facts: Quebec systematically receives a smaller share of new arrivals to Canada than its share of the Canadian population.

Then the new leader of the Parti Québécois arrived and decided to play the same game as the ADQ. Marois adopted the vocabulary of "us," clearly suggesting there is a threatening "them" out there. And she chose to poison the debate on accommodation by trying to create a language crisis. What better way to promote an outdated option for the future of Quebec.

Would René Lévesque, a great democrat, have accepted a bill creating two classes of citizens, a proposal that renounces the basic democratic principle that we all have the right to vote, the right to participate in how our society is governed? This draft legislation by the PQ goes against the values of Quebec.

But the best was yet to come when the ADQ, like a pyromaniac firefighter, in turn denounced Pauline Marois's draft legislation.

I never would have thought it possible in Quebec that the leaders of our democratic process would feed on prejudices rather than fight them. I never would have thought it possible that aspiring premiers would play with Quebec's international reputation.

I fully recognize the importance of this debate and the sensitive nerve it touches in each of us. That's why our government will affirm our common values. We will strengthen in our charter the value of equality between women and men, to better guide decision makers and the courts as they face demands for accommodation regarding cultural differences. We will also ensure that the right to vote can be exercised only with the face uncovered.

I will fight with all my energy this siege mentality my adversaries are promoting and using to have Quebecers believe this world was not made for them.

The Quebec identity is strong. For 400 years, we have defied logic and numbers to keep the French language alive and well in North America. Our artists and business people have conquered the world. Las Vegas resonates with the music and shows of Quebec. Bombardier is the only company in the world that has the expertise to build trains and airplanes. Montreal is becoming the Hollywood of the video-game industry.

Quebec's identity can never be promoted by building walls, by barricading ourselves. It can never flourish when driven by fear and intolerance. Our identity will grow with our influence. Quebec is recognized today as a nation. We speak with our own voice at UNESCO. We are making Quebec a world power in renewable energy. We are working to make Quebec Europe's gateway into North America through a trans-Atlantic accord between Canada and the European Union and a groundbreaking Quebec-France agreement on the recognition of diplomas and skills.

This is how Quebec can grow. By being a leader among progressive movements. By making Quebec a place where people want to invest, prosper, create, and raise a family. This is how we can strengthen our identity, by associating the name Quebec with economic and social success - and by inviting as many people as possible to come and share our success in French and on the basis of our common values.

This is my commitment to Quebec.


..............................................