The prime minister dipped a tentative toe in the rocky waters of Quebec identity politics, but the opposition leader who wants to replace him dove right in.
It was a tale of two reactions, featuring Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, as each leader Thursday made headline-grabbing remarks about the controversial Charter of Quebec Values. They did so in contrasting styles.
Harper trod warily. He promised to keep an eye on the eventual policy in order to ensure minority rights are protected. But in the meantime, he cited two reasons for withholding comment.
The prime minister said he wanted to wait because the Parti Qu©b©cois government has not even made its plan public and isn't expected to do so for another two weeks.
He also expressed concern about getting sucked into a political undercurrent.
"We know that the separatist government in Quebec would love to pick fights with Ottawa," Harper told a Toronto news conference.
"But that's not our business. Our business is the economy. Our business is job-creation for Canadians -- all Canadians, including Quebecers."
But in the next breath, he said the federal government also has a responsibility to minorities, and he intends to live up to it.
"And our job is social inclusion. Our job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel at home in this country and be Canadians," he said. "That's our job."
He is the last major federal leader to comment on the issue, which has raged for more than a week. Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have each criticized the PQ idea more than once.
A leaked copy of the plan suggests the PQ wants to prohibit public employees from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, kippas, hijabs and visible crosses.
In his latest remarks attacking the plan, Trudeau used the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech to lambaste the plan. He appeared to draw parallels between the PQ policy and U.S. segregation.
And thus began the latest chapter in the long, acrimonious history between the Parti Qu©b©cois and federal Liberal leaders named Trudeau.
"Oh, my god," said Bernard Drainville, the PQ minister responsible for the charter, when asked for a reaction Thursday. "I think he should make a little bit of an effort to elevate the debate instead of lowering it. I don't think it is helpful to get into this line of argument. I think we should try to have this debate in a respectful manner, even if we disagree sometimes."
Premier Pauline Marois echoed the sentiment: "I don't want to judge him by his comments, but it's evident that his comments are not an invitation to calm. (They) don't invite serenity, but rather throw oil on the fire."
At a partisan rally the previous night, Trudeau said 50 years after King fought against the notion of second-class citizens, there were still people in Quebec who would reduce others' rights.
Trudeau said: "These days, when you reflect on the 50th anniversary of that magnificent speech by Dr. King, who was fighting segregation, who was fighting discrimination, who was rejecting the notion that there are second-class citizens, you see that unfortunately even today, when we're talking, for instance, about this idea of a Charter of Quebec Values, that there are still people who believe you must choose between your religion and Qu©b©cois identity, that there are people forced by the state in Quebec to make irresponsible and inconceivable choices."
P©quistes fumed at the accusation of intolerance. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier described King as an inspiration to the PQ as well. Trudeau, on the other hand, appeared only to inspire its frustration. "I don't think Mr. Trudeau has any lessons to give to Quebecers," Cloutier said.
Polls suggest the charter idea is popular in Quebec, although it's unclear how high of a priority it is for voters there. Quebecers have also told pollsters they're interested in many other issues, like economic ones, above the charter idea.
-- The Canadian Press