Photo by Dimitros Papadpoulos/Newscom
Pauline Marois cannot seem to understand the furor caused by the proposal of the Parti Québécois’ Quebec Identity Act to limit access to citizenship, ascension to political office and even the right of grievance to the National Assembly unless newcomers to Quebec have an “appropriate” knowledge of French. Let us try and bring clarity to her comprehension. Ms. Marois, the furor arises because this is a matter of prejudice ! It is outrageous in a democratic society.
In his historic speech made upon his departure from office Lucien Bouchard sounded a clarion call for freedom. He said, “When issues are matters of principle, there is no room for negotiation. We touch here clearly at the heart of what is essential. I wish to affirm with absolutely no qualifications, that citizens of Quebec can exercise their right to vote, in whichever way they want, without being accused of intolerance.” Marois and today’s PQ, in a desperate bid to pander to Quebec’s hard-line exclusivists, are ready to jettison those noble thoughts to the dustbin of Quebec history with her statement that “Quebec’s francophones must stop feeling afraid of appearing intolerant.” Well, Quebec has long since stopped being afraid of appearing intolerant.
The Quebec Identity Act would not only provide a rationale for intolerance, but institutionalize it beyond anything we’ve seen before. Put aside the Orwellian state-speak of the use of the word “identity” or the obvious fact that Quebec is not yet an independent nation that can grant its own citizenship. What we can ask at this point is just who would decide “appropriate” levels of French competence ? The same bureaucrats who make up the language police ? Marois’ proposal to create two classes of citizenship, one for those non-francophones already here and another for newcomers, represents just the sort of divisions and discords that we are fighting abroad and trying to come to terms with at home. It does not matter whether the call for separateness is based on religion or colour or language. It still comes down to prejudice. And you can’t build a free society on bigotry.
Ms. Marois asked over the weekend why it was all right for Canadians, but not Quebecers, to use the term “us”. The reason is simple. Canada is a country that reflects the basic organizing principles of civilized nations. Laws of universal application that respect, with equitable treatment, the rights of every single individual. No citizen is excluded from the moral or material bounty of this land based on accidents of birth. Whether those accidents be geographic, religious or linguistic. The linguistic and cultural policies of the federal government, however flawed and cumbersome, are at their heart inclusive and expansionary of rights. Quebec’s policies on the other hand have for some 30 years been characterized by what French philosopher Jules Isaac termed “exclusiveness and intolerance” and have been severely constrictive of rights.
In trying to legitimize this proposal Marois brought out the old saw that this was necessary to ensure the future of the French language. It is time to say “ca suffit” to that refrain. No language can have priority over the basic civil liberties of citizens, even if it was in danger — and there is sufficient evidence to suggest French never was. The nationalists in Quebec have for too long been perpetuating this little lie along with the big lie of some great injustice done to a native people in its native land as the raison d’etre for the separatist movement.
Over the years apologists for the separatists, and supporters of devolution of federal power, have argued that all these laws and all these power-sharing arrangements with Quebec were necessary to subdue nationalist fervor. That as long as language and culture were protected, no laws would ever appear that would threaten basic democratic rights. They were wrong. Every time one power was given to Quebec, provincial governments regardless of partisan affiliation demanded more. Every time a language law was passed in one area of jurisdiction, its restrictive, serpentine tentacles would appear in another. Now they have slithered around the basic rights of a free people in a free society. The right to stand up and have one’s say in whatever tongue one chooses. And if you get elected so be it. But when you build on a big lie, this outcome should have come as no surprise.
While politicians make political capital, minorities — whether racial, linguistic or religious — suffer daily in Quebec. The message and metaphor of the struggle here is one of civil rights. Though the prejudice suffered here is not as draconian as in the American South in the sixties — thanks to federal protections we have here that were missing in the South — the damage is just as overt.
This latest affront to democratic discourse is not happening in a vacuum. Sir Wilfrid Laurier once said that, “It has been my lot to run the whole gamut of prejudices. From being excommunicated by Roman priests, to being condemned by Protestant parsons.” Well, amidst the Bouchard-Taylor commission hearings and the debate on reasonable accommodation it is instructive to look back on just the past 18 months’ “gamut of prejudices”. We will be able to understand why the ground is so fertile here for the PQ proposals.
The current debate on “tolerance” can be traced to comments made earlier this year by Mario Dumont on how much can Quebecers “accommodate” others and the Herouxville declaration against Muslim particularism. But it certainly didn’t stop there.
A group of francophone daycare teachers in Quebec’s largest school board raised their voices to object to the fact that Jewish and Muslim teachers got paid for their religious holidays as well as the Christian ones. Would they then be willing to give up their paid religious holidays and have everyone take a set number of paid pedagogical days off ? Ah no. They wanted to keep those days and the Christian holidays.
ADQ leader Mario Dumont weighed in again with his opinion that “Quebec’s values were first inspired by old-stock Europeans and their religious traditions”. Yet he still asserted that Quebec is welcoming to all. Well that should give “les autres” comfort.
A Léger Marketing poll commissioned by Quebec’s largest French newspaper and television network demonstrated that 59 percent of Quebecers considered themselves racist to one degree or another. An astonishing figure outside of Okeefenokee Swamp if the percentage was half that. Yet what was even more troubling were the ads promoting the poll. Below the question “Êtes-vous raciste ?” were pictures of Hasidic Jews and Chador-clad Muslim women. Since when do religious beliefs have anything to do with race ? About as much as language does with the right to exercise democratic rights. Nothing ! Yet in today’s Quebec that is the subliminal message that still goes out more than 50 years after Premier Maurice Duplessis used his infamous Padlock Law to close Frank Roncarelli’s restaurant because Roncarelli had become a Jehovah’s Witness and Duplessis hated the Witnesses with a passion.
On the heels of the Mouvement Montréalais Français’s successful boycott threat against Esso’s plan to change the name of its gas station shops from “Marché Express” to “On the Run” as they are everywhere else — and as permitted by Quebec’s language law — even provincial Liberal Minister Line Beauchamp decided to declare that there was still not enough French in downtown Montreal and that more should be done to promote “the common language” of Quebec society. Didn’t she get the memo that English is an official language ? Somebody should also tell her that the population of the island of Montreal is now more than 50 percent non-francophone and non-anglophone.
The message that is being propounded in Quebec, and expanded with the PQ’s latest proposal, is that this province is still wedded to “sang and langue”. Blood and language. “Ein volk ! Ein Kultur ! “One people. One culture.” And that message is being proclaimed, both directly and subliminally, so often and so egregiously that it has created a culture characterized by one overriding veneer. Prejudice. A prejudice that makes Quebec incapable of putting into place what should really characterize a progressive civil society in Canada. An inclusive, secular, bilingual civic structure of public institutions and services that gives no privilege or preference to any group based on parochial particularities but rather celebrates principles of our universal commonality. There need be no “reasonable accommodation” to anything but those principles.
The debate Marois has rekindled goes to the heart of the pathetic delusions of the Quebec malaise more starkly than most over the past year. She has, unwittingly, held up a mirror to the Quebec reality. And like the “portrait of Dorian Gray”, its reflection is not pretty.
The Marois proposals will not be glossed over or quickly forgotten amidst all the other debates on our public agenda. Nor should they be. For the debate we need now should not be about accommodating the cacophony of growing demands by every group under the sun. Ever-increasing demands based on race or creed or religion are inherently “unreasonable” and no liberal society based on universal principles can “accommodate” every diversity and stand for anything meaningful. And that goes for particularist demands from the majority as well.
The true debate that is needed is about the ability of Quebec to acculturate itself to liberal universal principles. All the current talk in Quebec today about “reasonableness” and “values” and “integration” is just a smokescreen to avoid that debate and to deflect from the daily reality that Quebec can easily slip back to the future. Back to a revived “grande noirceur". For as much as this is a matter of prejudice it is also about a question of values.
Whatever “values” Marois and her ilk think Quebec represents, and that they seek to “protect”, they are certainly not in any tradition of classic western liberal pluralism. In fact they are even divorced from the French republican model that jealously guards not only a separation between church and state but vigorously seeks to enforce an equitable distribution of rights in its public life. Quebec’s “values” are much more in line with the classic statement of Andrei Gromyko, the former Soviet Foreign Minister. “What’s mine is mine,” he said. “What’s yours is negotiable.”
One might ask why stay in such a place. The reason one is compelled to stay is that wherever and whenever one finds injustice in this world one is obligated to fight it. Submission and retreat is neither an option nor an answer for anyone of conscience and character. Nor is it appropriate to look for a place of “greater” injustice to expend our energies in. Fate has put us here. And more importantly, Canada has given us much. To those to whom much is given, from them much is expected. At least the responsibility to take a stand. For in the final analysis, minorities or not, we are somebody !
It is time to speak truth to the people of Quebec. Nathalie Elgrably wrote in Vers une vraie Révolution tranquille, “Ce ne sont plus les balises imposées par les hommes de foi qui limitent les libertés individuelles, ce sont celles inventées par les hommes d’État.” And if these “statesmen” won’t stop the nullifications and interpositions to individual liberty and reverse the crimes of cultural prejudice, then maybe it’s time for us, “les autres”, to raise our voices of authenticity and courage and say “Québec, ça suffit. Quebec, it’s enough.” Rights are rights are rights. And the message and metaphor of the current struggle whose flames have been rekindled by Marois is civil rights.
The assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers was once encouraged to move from Jackson, Mississippi to Atlanta where he could continue his work in the civil rights struggle in relative safety after having received countless death threats. Evers answered, “I don’t know if I’m going to heaven or hell but I’m going from Jackson.” It is a call that should resonate with all who would keep faith with the vision of Thomas D’Arcy McGee that “there is room in this Northern Dominion — under one flag and one set of laws — for one great people. There is no possibility for that greatness — under that same flag and those same laws — if we succumb to a hundred squabbling particularities.”