In framing Nycole Turmel's affiliation with the Bloc as a scandal, writes Nick Van der Graaf, The Globe and Mail revealed the dangerous nationalist underbelly of Canadian politics. This story was originally published in The Mark, and a version of it also appeared on Van der Graaf's blog.

In framing interim federal NDP leader Nycole Turmel's affiliation with the Bloc as a scandal, writes Nick Van der Graaf, The Globe and Mail revealed the dangerous nationalist underbelly of Canadian politics. This story was originally published in The Mark, and a version of it also appeared on Van der Graaf's blog.

The cover story of Tuesday’s Globe and Mail was a non-story of the worst kind. Globe writer Daniel LeBlanc has reported that interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel was, for several years, a member of the Bloc Québécois.

Now, let’s be clear about two points before we deal with the meat of this issue. First, it is perfectly normal for Canadians, over the course of their lives, to vote for, support, and belong to more than one party. I might add that this is equally true of Canadian politicians, who often cross the floor and sit with a party they were loudly denouncing in the previous election. So, if Turmel has supported more than one party in recent years, it isn’t really a story at all.

Second, Quebec has its own culture, history, and politics, and that is an inescapable reality. Even strong federalists in Quebec can acknowledge the rationale for sovereignty, and many Quebecers have supported one side and then the other over the course of their lives. Moreover, in general, the political centre in Quebec is somewhat to the left of the rest of Canada, so that also has an effect on where Quebecers choose to place their political support.

So what exactly is Turmel guilty of? Belonging to a perfectly legal political party that espouses sovereignty for Quebec. A party that supports democratic process, does not advocate against anybody, and has often played a constructive role in the Commons.


Yet The Globe would have us believe this is the stuff of scandal. Within minutes of the story appearing on The Globe’s website, the most fearful denunciations of Turmel were posted in reaction to the story. Here’s a quick sampling:

doggysnoopy: There is nothing in the resignation letter that indicates that she disavows the BQ views and she's adopting federalist views. [It] seems to me that the NDP has been hijacked by a plant.
hollinm1: It is time for the media to begin investigating every newbie from Quebec that was elected. We really have to know who is in the majority in the NDP caucus. … [F]ederalists or Separatists.
snufflupagus: Dig a little deeper into the backgrounds of all those kindergarteners, and you'll find equally seditious backgrounds.
FDRomanowski: Here [are] the facts dippers. You sold your soul to the separatist devils and they now run the party. You wanted it you got it.

Note the language used. Turmel is a “plant” (i.e., a spy). Quebec NDP MPs have “seditious backgrounds.” They are “separatist devils.” One comment links sovereignists to Islamic terrorism. And, rather ominously, there is a call for “the media to begin investigating.” These aren’t normal disagreements that regularly appear in the public discourse; this is the upwelling of a paranoid and hateful element that exists across English Canada. The English mainstream media will almost never write about this element, but they rely on it as a ready audience for pseudo-stories like this one.

We saw some of this overt Quebec-bashing during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first prorogation crisis. The proposed Liberal-NDP coalition was constantly characterized – and the smear continued against the opposition parties even into the last election – as “separatist” because it had the support of the Bloc. I’ve no doubt that Harper himself didn’t believe a word of it, but he and his advisers understand full well that bashing Quebec earns you political points across the rest of Canada. As we all saw, their strategy was rewarded at the polls.

This sentiment is ugly and dangerous. It poses a real threat to Canadian society – much more than any agitation for Quebec independence. If Quebec became independent, Canada could survive. But if we fan the flames of intolerance, the nation will fall apart.

I had the misfortune of being exposed to a mass expression of this sort of intolerance when I was living in Ottawa in the late 1990s. It is an incident I refer to as the worst political experience of my life. In 1998, I attended a public meeting about David Levine, who, in 1979, had run unsuccessfully for the Parti Québécois, and who was, around the time of this meeting, being appointed the head of the Ottawa Hospital. Public reaction was simply out of control, and readily stoked by the local yellow press.

What I saw at that meeting was absolutely chilling: a mob howling for the man's blood because he was a “separatist.” Any time anyone tried to speak reason, he or she was shouted down by Anglophones red-faced with anger, and drowned out by repeated loud renditions of "O Canada". It is a terrible thing to see one’s national anthem used as a blunt instrument to bludgeon others into silence. It happened in my own community.

That knee-jerk anti-Quebec sentiment is widespread across the rest of Canada, and the editorial boards and party mouthpieces currently denouncing Turmel as disloyal should know better than to fan the flames of inter-communal intolerance. But they can’t resist playing the “us versus them” game, despite the ghastly results such games have had in other countries. Obviously, they are not calling for violence or persecution. But, without knowing it, they are prepping Canadians to be receptive to those that do.