Friday, December 12, 2008

Media Shenanigans in Québec?

Last month, I explained the origins of Québec's new ethics and religious culture course, and I noted that it seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a significant issue in the provincial election campaign. I also pointed out that Mario Dumont, a right-wing politician, had tried to take advantage of public controversy surrounding the new course (it was alleged to be overly secular), and I promised that I would give an update on whether the issue caught fire. Interestingly, the issue did not prove to be to M. Dumont's advantage at all--the general public was, apparently, not interested in his criticisms. On Dec. 8, Dumont's party, the Action Democratique de Québec (ADQ), was crushed at the polls, and was reduced from 41 seats to 7. Dumont immediately resigned from the leadership of the ADQ as a result of this poor showing.

In the previous (2007) election, Dumont had profited politically from a media frenzy (which he helped to incite) surrounding the question of reasonable accommodations for immigrants and religious minorities. This controversy resulted in the formation of a traveling commission chaired by philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gérard Bouchard (see photo above). In May of 2008, Bouchard and Taylor released their final report on the matter of reasonable accommodation, entitled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation.

In a previous post, I commented on the role of the media in representing the views of people who attended the public hearings of the commission. As it turns out, one of the most interesting aspects of the final report examines the media's systematic misrepresentation of the reasonable accommodation controversy. Bouchard and Taylor analyze 15 separate incidents in which they feel the media distorted the account significantly. In each case, the commissioners present two versions of events: the media's account and the story that they gathered through their own investigations. I've quoted one exemplary account at length:
11. The Mont-Saint-Grégoire sugarhouse (March 2007)

([The media account]) Muslims arrived one morning at the sugarhouse, which can accommodate 750 people, and demanded that the menu be altered to conform to their religious standard. All of the other customers were therefore obliged at noon that day to consume pea soup without ham and pork-free pork and beans (this prohibition was apparently subsequently extended to other sugarhouses). In the afternoon, the same Muslims entered the crowded dance hall and interrupted the festivities under way (music and dancing) to recite their prayers. The customers in the dance hall were expelled from the sugarhouse.

([The commission's account]) One week before the outing, a representative of Astrolabe, a Muslim association, met with the sugarhouse’s owners to discuss certain changes to the menu, which would apply solely to the members of the group. The modified menu excluded pork meat but included halal sausage and salami provided and paid for by Astrolabe. This arrangement having been made, the association reserved one of the four dining rooms in the sugarhouse for its exclusive use. On the appointed day, after the meal, members of the group moved several tables and chairs in the room reserved for them for a short prayer. The management of the sugarhouse wanted to free up the room as quickly as possible (business was brisk and nearly 300 customers were waiting to be seated) and proposed to the 40 or so individuals who wished to pray that they use instead the dance hall, which can accommodate roughly 650 people. Thirty or so customers were then in the room, some of them waiting to be seated in the dining room. Several young girls were dancing to popular music. The management of the sugarhouse interrupted the music so that the Muslim customers could say their prayers, which took less than 10 minutes. The music then resumed. According to the management, no one was expelled from or asked to leave the dance hall.

See Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation (Québec: Gouvernement de Québec, 2008), 72.
In the report, Bouchard and Taylor discuss what they call the media's "Fabrication of Perceptions," and they note that there was a significant amount of public outrage about the role of the media, both from the general public as well as from individual members of the media. Clearly, Bouchard and Taylor have some of the same concerns about the shaping of public perceptions that preoccupied Dewey and Lippmann during the 1920s. Books like Public Opinion (Lippmann), The Phantom Public (Lippmann), and The Public and its Problems (Dewey) still shed a great deal of light on these kinds of issues.

Obviously, this is an issue that extends far beyond the Québec context, and which poses an ongoing and difficult (albeit fascinating) educational challenge.


ThinkOutOfTheBoxLefties said...

(ADQ's poor showing has mostly to do with poor young MPs rather than its ideas, studies show the PQ and PLQ gained virtually no voters, the ADQs voters simply did not show up)

Just to make you think :

Quebec's creepy new curriculum

An often-quoted Jesuit maxim boasts, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

Only seven? Amateurs! Since September all Quebec students from primary school entry to high school graduation, whether enrolled in public or non-funded private schools, must attend Quebec's new Ethics and Religious Culture course (ERC). And teachers, regardless of their beliefs, must teach it.

Jonathan Gagne, a courageous teenager at the Joseph-Hermas-Leclerc secondary school in Granby, Que., has just been suspended, and will likely be expelled, for boycotting ERC. He is a hero to thousands of angry, mainly Catholic, Quebecers who consider compulsory submission to ERC a violation of their human rights.

More on the National Post's site.

David Waddington said...

First, although I agree that there is some debate about why the ADQ did so badly, I disagree with your claim that the "ADQ voters simply did not show up." The other parties took a larger share of the vote than in 2007. While the Liberals and the PQ may not have increased their numerical vote totals substantially due to a dramatically lower voter turnout, they certainly gained a substantially increased share of the vote. The ADQ received 16.35% in 2008, compared to 30.8% in 2007. In Francophone ridings, the figures are probably even more stark. As far as I know, there is no reason to suppose that ADQ voters decided to stay home more frequently than Liberal or PQ supporters did.

As far as the new course is concerned, I would invite you to look at the curriculum documents referenced in a previous post. The curriculum seems more moderate and thoughtful than Ms. Kay might claim.