Philip Authier, Montreal Gazette, April 9, 2019
Premier François Legault has added his name to a chorus of political voices at the National Assembly and elsewhere calling on the mayor of Hampstead to apologize for comparing Quebec’s new secularism bill to ethnic cleansing.
But as of Tuesday evening, William Steinberg was not budging, insisting the media is doing a disservice to Quebecers by focusing on two words instead of explaining the context in which he pronounced them.
“Since the phrase was ethnic cleansing not with a gun but with a law, a more accurate short description is peaceful ethnic cleansing,” Steinberg said in an email to the Montreal Gazette.
Steinberg said the real issue is the wording in the CAQ government’s Bill 21, which he said discriminates against religious minorities and limits their job opportunities.
“It will lead to fewer of them coming to Quebec and to many already here leaving,” he said. “That will lead to a less diverse Quebec society. A law that targets minorities and uses the notwithstanding clause to get away with it is odious and should be condemned in the strongest possible language.
“I will not apologize for saying the truth and calling attention to the effects of this immoral bill.”
The premier did not hesitate to criticize Steinberg.
“I was happy to see members of the Jewish community asking the mayor of Hampstead to apologize because they (the remarks) are unacceptable,” Legault told reporters on his way into question period.
“What he said is unacceptable. I think he has to apologize, to all Quebecers, because Quebecers have the right to say that people working for the government being in an authority position cannot wear religious signs.
“You may disagree, but you cannot compare that to what happened to the Jewish people. I’m confident that he will apologize. I am appealing for calm. I understand there are people with different opinions, but we can debate in a respectful manner.”
Legault made the comments shortly after many others demanded the mayor apologize, including D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum and Montreal city hall opposition leader Lionel Perez.
“I think the mayor should apologize for his comments,” Birnbaum said in a statement. “They were hurtful, deeply inappropriate and unworthy of his passionate opposition to Bill 21, which I share.
“The premier has his dog and whistle out and is dividing Quebecers in his defence of this very bad law. Let’s not help him do that.”
During the news conference Friday, Steinberg called Bill 21 a form of “ethnic cleansing” that would ban minority religions and allow only secularism and Christianity.
“This is an attempt to remove those who practise minority religions, leaving only non-believers and Christians in Quebec,” he said. “This is ethnic cleansing. Not with a gun, but with a law.”
The other politicians attending the news conference rapidly disassociated themselves from Steinberg’s remarks. Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette called the remarks unacceptable and out of place.
Speaking to reporters in Montreal Tuesday, Perez said Steinberg displayed a serious lack of judgment in making such a statement.
“We were scandalized by Mr. Steinberg’s remarks,” Perez said. “These remarks were totally unacceptable and odious in a democratic society like ours.
“When we are talking about ethnic cleansing, we are talking about murders, killings. We are talking about Rwanda, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, we are talking about other genocides.
“This has no place here. I am against the law, but I would never use such incendiary remarks as Mr. Steinberg. I think he has displayed a serious lack of judgment and must apologize unequivocally.”
The interim leader of the Parti Québécois, Pascal Bérubé, and the co-spokesperson for Québec solidaire, Manon Massé, also called for an apology.
“They are remarks that are profoundly shameful,” Bérubé said. “He should present a real apology, in English and French. And I would like his voters to call him to order.”
“These remarks are completely unacceptable, irresponsible,” Massé said. “I don’t think this is how we want to conduct a civilized discussion.”