June 24th, 2024

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest calls on Canada’s leaders to promote civility

By Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press on April 6, 2024.

Conservative Leadership candidate Jean Charest answers questions from reporters after the third debate of the 2022 Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

QUEBEC – Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest is concerned about what he says has been a rise in incivility across Canada.

In an open letter he co-signed with former mayors, senators, artists and business people, he calls on the political class to take concrete action to clean up public debate.

The letter published Tuesday in The Globe and Mail caused a stir on social media, Charest said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

“The reaction is very strong. It stunned us. It surprised me a lot,” he said. “Some people are reacting poorly, seeing this call as a kind of call to silence, when that’s not the case at all.”

The letter authors contend Canadians are less tolerant of divergent points of view and are increasingly belligerent, particularly when it comes to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas.

They point to what they describe as a broad and “worrisome” trend that leads some people with “strident ideologies” and a lack of nuance to act out in “intimidating and violent ways.”

Charest and his co-signatories warn that if nothing is done to “address urgently the rise of incivility,” Canada’s social fabric will be “torn apart, perhaps irreparably.”

“We are calling upon you, the senior political leadership of Canada, to … demonstrate your shared commitment to fostering a safer, more cohesive and respectful Canada, where hatred has no home,” they wrote.

Charest blames social media for “setting free” people’s speech. He said he is particularly outraged by a recent wave of resignations in Quebec municipalities. Around 800 local politicians have quit their posts since the last elections in 2021.

Former Gatineau mayor France Bélisle became one of the most high-profile officials to resign, saying in February she had been the victim of intimidation.

“(Incivility) affects the ability of elected officials to do their job, to the point where there are people, like the mayor of Gatineau, who give up,” Charest lamented.

“There are women who, unfortunately, experience rather difficult situations when people allow themselves to make remarks on social media that are frankly hurtful and intended to wound.”

He also referred to recent death threats targeting Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and an instance in which Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was confronted in the street about the war in Gaza.

The conflict has also inflamed tensions on Quebec university campuses, Charest said.

“I was talking to a university rector recently. They’re on the lookout … so that there’s a dialogue on campus, but it’s very difficult because there are a lot of emotions, and that’s a big concern,” he said.

Charest, who was premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012, said he has noted a “drift” in society, with tensions having “increased a lot” in recent years.

He pointed to the influence of American politics.

“We’re saying to Quebecers and all other Canadians: ‘Don’t let what’s going on in the U.S. influence the way you look at things,'” he urged.

“We want to live in a society where there is a culture of tolerance, acceptance and dialogue. Our democracy is too important to let these things happen without saying anything.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2024.

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