The Quebec government demanded an apology from Maclean's magazine on Friday for what it described as an attack against all the province's people.

This week's cover calls Quebec "the most corrupt province in Canada," with an image showing the jolly Bonhomme Carnaval mascot clutching a briefcase overflowing with cash.

The issue hit newsstands on the very day that Premier Jean Charest completed a two-day stint as a witness at an inquiry into political cronyism, where he vigorously defended his reputation.

By the end of the day, his government had seized on an opportunity to spring not only to the defence of its own reputation -- but to that of an entire people against an alleged affront from a weekly news magazine.

Quebec's deputy premier, Nathalie Normandeau, strode to a news conference clutching the latest copy of Maclean's.

She accused the publication of Quebec-bashing -- then swiftly proceeded to use it as a tool to do some bashing of her own, against her political opponents. Normandeau accused the opposition of not being vocal enough in denouncing the magazine.

The opposition Parti Quebecois has, in fact, protested the cover. But it also says the current Charest government makes it pretty hard for it to defend Quebec, given of its plethora of political scandals.

The Maclean's issue was a top item on Quebec newscasts Friday as outrage filled the airwaves. Even the Quebec carnival demanded an apology for what it called unfair use of its mascot's image.

But Maclean's wasn't apologizing.

"We were aware that some of our readers might find the cartoon on the cover to be provocative," the magazine said, "but we think that the articles should be read and judged based on their own merits of fair and credible journalism."

Normandeau said the magazine unfairly painted an entire province with the same brush.

"It's so easy to do Quebec-bashing. . . Enough's enough," she said.

"Maclean's should apologize to all the people of Quebec. . . Maclean's is attacking our institutions, our history, our symbols. Today, Maclean's deliberately decided to attack the whole of Quebec, of who we are as a society."

Two articles in the magazine's Oct. 4 edition aim to answer the question of why so many political scandals originate from Quebec -- looking at a lengthy list of issues that have dogged the Charest government in recent years and also examining provincial scandals since the 1930s.

The article makes brief references to the three B.C. premiers who were turfed by scandal within a decade, and to the dozen members of Saskatchewan's Devine government who were charged in an expense-account scam in the 1990s.

But it offers a far more detailed examination of Quebec's various scandals while pondering the question of why corruption should be so ingrained in one political culture.

The article examines the Duplessis reign, the construction scams of the 1970s, the Mulroney era, and the federal sponsorship scandal. It also points to more recent allegations of corruption at Montreal city hall and the current Bastarache inquiry investigating allegations of impropriety in the naming of Quebec judges.

"The slew of dodgy business is only the most recent in a long line of made-in-Quebec corruption that has affected the province's political culture at every level," Maclean's Martin Patriquin writes.

"It raises an uncomfortable question: why is it that politics in Canada's bete noire province seem perpetually rife with scandal?"

Federal and provincial politicians of all stripes slammed the magazine as exaggerated, unfair and divisive.

The leader of the Bloc Quebecois was stirred into publishing an open letter, titled on one newspaper website as, "Are Canadians xenophobes?"

Gilles Duceppe argues in his letter that it's wrong to make such generalizations -- and he castigates Maclean's for making one about Quebecers. He notes that Quebecers are more outraged than anybody about corruption and are clamouring for a major inquiry into it.

"They want the clean-up done, but they run up against the refusals of the Liberal government," Duceppe wrote in an open letter published on Le Soleil newspaper's website.

"Since these scandals are the business of federalist parties, should we generalize and insinuate that all federalists are corrupt? Of course not. There exist thousands of Quebec federalists who are perfectly honest."

But the Bloc leader argues that Maclean's has done just that in the article.

"So if Maclean's on one hand represents Quebec as a whole as being corrupt, should we deduce that Canada is entirely xenophobic, when it comes to Quebec and only when it comes to Quebec?," Duceppe writes.

"This perception is indeed widespread in Canada, but one certainly cannot generalize and say that all Canadians see things that way."

The story by Patriquin, and the accompanying column by Andrew Coyne, examine a number of hypotheses to explain the alleged preponderance of corruption in Quebec.

One theory is that, according to the rules of the bitter sovereignty-vs.-Canadian unity debate, politics is war and politicians are willing to win by any means necessary -- as witnessed by the infamous sponsorship program.

Another suggestion takes aim at Quebec's interventionist model of government. The theory goes that because the Quebec government is larger and spends more per capita than those in other provinces, for instance on things like construction projects, business interests are eager to corrupt politicians.

The magazine also suggests that because Quebecers see themselves as an aggrieved minority, any constructive criticism of the province is inevitably dismissed as "Quebec-bashing." Coyne's column actually concludes with a prediction that the magazine will face that familiar accusation because of its latest issue.

Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said any notion of Quebec being more corrupt is based on sensationalism more than on fact.

"Corruption is a an elastic term and a lot of people think, for example, that wasteful spending is corruption," Wiseman said.

"Others believe that once you become a politician, once that word (corruption) is associated with your name, you're corrupt by definition."

One prominent Quebec political scientist interviewed on television wondered why Quebec would be treated so much more harshly in the story than Saskatchewan or B.C., and he suggested that in English Canada the only remaining acceptable form of prejudice is against Quebecers.

Maclean's has gone for more provocative covers in recent years and it isn't the first time the magazine has made waves in Quebec.

Just before last year's Montreal municipal election, a headline splashed across the cover read: "Montreal is a corrupt, crumbling, Mob-ridden disgrace."

The latest issue prompted organizers of the Quebec carnival to send a letter of protest to the magazine.

They said they were duped into providing a logo of their tuque-wearing mascot that was later altered for the cover. They want the current issue taken off newsstands.

"Bonhomme is really really well-known across Quebec and across Canada," said Jean-Francois Cote, president of next year's carnival. "But having been used this way . . . has a tremendous negative impact on us."

University of Ottawa political scientist Robert Asselin said perhaps the "bashing" complaint is a bit of a stretch. He said there is evidence, however, of misunderstanding in the rest of Canada.

"I know that it's always easy when you're in English Canada to say that Quebec whines all the time and Quebec likes it when it's different," Asselin said.

"Quebec-bashing might be a bit strong (of an accusation) but I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what Quebec really is and I think the two solitudes often remains."