Last weekend, the government of Québec passed some pretty heinous legislation. Using a means of closure, the governing party, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, first passed Bill 9, which was a comprehensive reform of the immigration process to the province (Québec is the only Canadian province that gets some control over immigration and who gets to move to Québec), including a ‘values test,’ which, of course, is thinly veiled racism. But it was Bill 21, the so-called ‘secularism’ legislation that was even more offensive.
Québec, like all other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States, needs immigrants. The birth rate in Québec, as of 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, is 10.4 per thousand, which is below the Canadian average of 10.6/1000. In other words, Québec doesn’t replace its population through birth rates, so it needs immigrants. We have an ageing population, and one way to address that, or to at least ensure the social welfare net doesn’t entirely fray, is by importing people who will then pay taxes and contribute to our wider collective good.
And then there’s the fact that the big Québec cities, like other big cities across Canada and the US, are incredibly diverse. Premier François Legault and the CAQ garner most of their support in rural Québec (like Premier Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale did in the regressive 1950s), as well as the South Shore suburbs of Montréal and Québec. But the cities of Montréal, Québec, and Gatineau are solidly Liberal red and Québec Solidaire orange.
In 2007, Hérouxville, a village of about 1500 people in Central Québec, passed a Code of Conduct for immigrants. The Code dripped Islamophobia. The immigrant population of Hérouxville? Zero. A court case at around the same time centered on whether or not a Sikh student could wear his kirpan at school. And the YMCA in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montréal, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Canada, created a separate space for Orthodox Jewish women to work out. No biggy, right? Wrong. Many, especially outside of Montréal, saw this as the end of the world as they knew it. And so off to the races we went. In one case, we’ve got a visible minority group that has long been the scapegoat of Québec, going back to Adrien Arcand and his fascists in Depression-era Montréal. And in the other, the new scapegoat group.
All of this together led then-Premier Jean Charest to appoint a commission led by historian/sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. Ultimately, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission recommended that some Crown officials, such as judges, prosecutors, prison guards, and police officers not wear any religious attire or symbols on the job. Bouchard and Taylor concluded
We believe that a majority of Quebecers accept that a uniform prohibition applying to all government employees regardless of the nature of their position is excessive, but want those employees who occupy positions that embody at the highest level the necessary neutrality of the state … to impose on themselves a form of circumspection concerning the expression of their religious convictions.
Now here’s the interesting thing. No one cared about ‘reasonable accommodations’ and thought that the battle for laïcité had been won a generation ago until around 11 September 2001 and the upswell of Islamophobia that came in the aftermath. As this silliness about reasonable accommodations engulfed the province, the right-wing Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a precursor of the CAQ, capitalized and gained in support in the outlying regions. The leader of the traditionally leftist, and main, separatist party, the Parti québécois, Pauline Marois, recognized the need for immigrants to Québec, but also demanded Québec gain full control over immigration from Ottawa and make it very clear that Québec is NOT a bilingual jurisdiction (Canada is officially bilingual, but French is really only spoken in New Brunswick, Québec, and Eastern Ontario; New Brunswick is our only officially bilingual province), and that is is a French-speaking place.
And then she stepped off the deep end. When the PQ came back to power in 2012 and the following year, Marois attempted to introduce a Charte des valeurs, or Values Charter, into law in Québec. She was voted out of office, rightfully so.
I should also add that Québec takes in the fewest immigrants per capita of all Canadian provinces. And then there is the question of secularism, or laïcité, as we call it in Québec. An historically Catholic culture, Québec declericised and began the process of minimizing the role of the Church in the state in the 1960s, during the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution). When I was a kid in school in Montréal, however, I still had to recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning in my Catholic school. The schools were only declericized in the late 1980s. But, the battle was done, finished, and over. We had declericized our society.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC in 2001, Islamophobia rose in Western Europe and North America, Québec was no different. In fact, the bulk of this discussion about reasonable accommodations was a response to 9/11, it was Islamophobic in nature, combined with, as noted, old fashioned Québec anti-Semitism. In other words, nobody cared about religious symbols, be it the massive cross in the Assemblée Nationale or the hijab worn by a Muslim woman in Montréal. The battle was over and done with.
In short, Bill 21 is racist, and is based in racism. Legault himself confirmed this in an interview with Radio-Canada (the French language CBC) this week, declaring, ‘There are people who are a little racist and don’t want to see religious symbols anywhere in public.’ So there we have it, Bill 21 was driven by racism and the government of Québec, elected with 37.1% of the votes last year, is pandering to racists. Pointe finale, as we say in Québec.