The Charter of Quebec Values will not last. It may not even pass at this rate. Nothing this blunt and wide-sweeping could. The ruling Parti Québécois released this handy infographic detailing what would be appropriate under the new charter (top row) and what wouldn’t (bottom). As it proudly displays, everyone is getting their own special form of white-washing, with Sikhs and any anti-jewelry sects of Islam in particular getting the cold shoulder. The brickwork backdrop is an apt choice from the Marois’ PR department, as the charter has only worked to wall her government off from both the religious voting blocks outlined in the poster and just about everyone else on the political scene. From high up on the hill where strange bedfellows now meet, right down to the plucky Quebec Solidaire and even the freakin’ Bloc, it seems like everyone’s rearing to distance themselves from this dull and bumbling two-headed ogre.
To his credit one of those heads, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, has been trying to make the best case possible, citing gender equality. state neutrality, and an appeal to focus on common values, all very tame and worthy arguments to consider. It probably doesn’t help that the other head he’s stuck with is lolling around in its socket, spouting off whatever rambling bit of xenophobic propaganda it can grasp at a given moment. Focusing particularly on Islam, Marois’ comments have touched on the brainwashing capacities of the hijab and the rising intifada in England, of all places. But, as she is quick to state, “The objective is not to provoke”, a snide and empty statement from a snide and empty politician.
However, strange as it may be, I kind of believe her.
Multiculturalism is one of the shining values of Canada as a nation, enshrined into law and practiced every day in most of our major cities from coast to coast. Even a small town like Charlottetown, with a massive white catholic majority, is visibly weaved with ethnic restaurants, resources, and entertainment. But Marois’ isn’t looking to Canada on this issue, instead opting for the much more muddled and nuanced situation that European countries find themselves locked in. She prefers the confirmation bias of a bus bombing or gruesome attack overseas to her own relatively explosion-free cities. But I don’t think she’s cut from the same cloth as her European counterparts, nor that this legislation comes from any aggressive notion of racism, wielded as a club to push back the high tide of immigrants seeking to impose Sharia Law or snuff out white babies in their sleep. If Marois’ burned with that kind of hate or wanted her perfect vision of French-style secularism here in Canada, her efforts would look a lot more like those of Mr. Hollande or even of Sweden, whose legislation are pointed and decreed with little fuss over equality or rights.
No, Marois is fighting a bigger battle here, one of fierce cultural protectionism where religion is simply the next battleground. For the longest time, and most certainly in the last decade or so, the idea of the anglo culture elbowing its way into Quebec and taking over has created a lot of push back from hardcore French Canadians. There was a time when we would have called these people Separatists, but since the failed referendum these sentiments have evolved and coalesced into something mirroring Harper’s “nation within a nation” proclamation. It is no coincidence that the funding for the Office québécois de la langue française, their “language police”, has slowly grown from $17.8 million in 2004 to $24.7 million today. When she was elected last year, Marois identified language and culture as central to her agenda and what she was willing to fight for, and since then her government has worked to further carve out the ideal Quebecois nation. The last year has been peppered with stories from the OQLF’s newest initiatives to enforce the French language on businesses, or eliminate wording that sounds too English, including pastagate, the 17 year old Wellarc-gate, and Major Canadian Retailers-gate. Although these issues were poked fun of and seen as humorous by the rest of English-speaking Canada, internally they are taken very seriously and cause all sorts of nightmares.
The cultural fight over language in Quebec has always been around, ebbing and flowing with the times, and but always in some way regaled to the sidelines. When living and working in most of Quebec, on an individual, day-to-day basis, it’s generally accepted that you either speak French fluently or should at least work to improve your French skills, so the battles here have always been over seemingly niggling issues. It’s when this effort to laminate the Quebec culture moves into the realm of religion, which is not so easily enforced by social group, conformity, or job prospects, that things get ugly.
This is entirely thanks to how deeply intertwined Christianity and the Quebecois culture are. From its inception there simply wasn’t a difference between the two, with the church performing many of the roles we see the government doing now. Although the Quiet Revolution secularized much of the province, resulting in the lowest church attendance rate in any western society and highest common-law marriages and abortions by 2008, the culture still very much views Christian practices as normal and everything else as foreign intrusion. There have been a few attempts, in 2007 and 2008, to remove the crucifix from the National Assembly, but these were rejected as quickly as they were mentioned. Catechism was part of the french-language curriculum well into the late 90s even for students who were non-practicing. And this worldview is evident all over the newest statements for the Charter of Values. Drainville confirmed Christmas trees would still be allowed in government offices because they are part of the Quebec culture. Grand crucifixes in the same halls are certainly not under threat, and only from a Christian worldview would one believe the appropriate exceptions for religious expression would be in the form of jewelry (which is haram for men of Islam and discouraged for women). How a turban or hijab could be a symbol of faith without the home team’s chosen symbol on it must have spun heads at the PQ policy roundtables. There might be some honest debate over this law if there was any indication that it was thought through critically, would be executed thoroughly, and performed in good faith (no pun intended). But right now there’s every indication that it’s not, and that the review of theological symbols and practices in government were kept to an examination of the other, and not of house rule.
Would elected officials and courtroom witnesses in this staunchly secular state continue to swear an oath on that most non-secular of documents, the Bible? Drainville appeared caught off-guard by the question: “Oh, my God,” he replied, slowly, “we’ll get back to you.”
So whenever Drainville or Marois spit out sentiments about rallying around the common values that define us, they’re really just talking about Christian Quebecois values, as if there could never be a natural Islamic Quebecois, or a native born Quebecois Sikh, or even a Jewish Quebecois who takes pride in and lives happily with their religious and cultural heritage.
But then again, the PQ are riding forces that spew up from below them. These are reactionary politics, fueled by a growing persecution complex that has simmered for decades. The same sentiments can be seen in the modern Republican nostalgia for the simpler times of the ’50s, or in Syria where an Alawite minority slaughters in fear of being slaughtered themselves. When the belief is that the Quebecois way of life is being pushed out, either by English or by other religions with their own cultural baggage, the push back is going to come one way or another. It’s the struggle to preserve something that’s intangible, a picturesque view of Quebec that may have existed at one time but which is slowly washing away in the new century. It’s a form of cultural natural selection playing out in real time, and the Charter of Values is Marois’ attempt at sneaking a thumb on the scale. She may, in her own weird way, completely believe she is not provoking anything, but protecting something of greater value.
As a post-script, I recommend checking out this interview with Palbinder Kaur Shergill. a Quebecois Sikh litigator. She provides a good perspective from the Sikh side of the issue and is one of the many actively working on the ground against these kinds of legislation.