Monday, September 24, 2012

Quebec nationalist leader critiques PQ’s anti-immigrant ‘charter of exclusion’


As I mentioned in my report on the Quebec election, among the issues championed by the Parti québécois was that of strengthening Quebecois identity, focused around the PQ demand for a charte de laïcité or Charter of Secularism that would effectively exclude women wearing the Muslim hijab or scarf from employment in government or public services. PQ leader Pauline Marois drove the point home by parachuting a notorious Islamophobe as the party’s candidate in the riding of Trois-Rivières. Djemila Benhabib was defeated, but not before this provocative action had been widely publicized.

Now a powerful voice has been raised within Quebec nationalist ranks in protest against the PQ position. In a major op-ed article in the September 22 issue of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, Jean Dorion explained why the PQ’s position on “secularism” had convinced him not to support the party in this election. Dorion is a former MP of the Bloc québécois, a former official in PQ governments and former president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montréal. The SSJB is an historic Quebec institution, founded by leaders of the Patriote movement in the years leading up to the 1837 revolt against British colonialism and today is a leading secular voice in the broader nationalist and sovereigntist movement.

It is to be hoped that Dorion’s statement, which I have translated below, will open up a much-needed debate within sovereigntist ranks on such issues as what is meant by secularism, the difference between state neutrality toward religion and freedom of religious belief, and the related questions of the role of immigration and the challenge of finding ways to welcome and integrate oppressed and visible minorities within Quebec society.

There is much confusion on these questions, and it extends through much of the left as well. An example is the record of the left party, Québec solidaire. At its November 2009 program convention, QS adopted what it termed a “model of secularism” that, among other things, defended the right of “state agents” (i.e. employees and officials) to wear insignia of their religious beliefs, if any — a position that would oppose the PQ’s proposed charter with its imposed dress codes. (For a full report, see “Quebec left debates strategy for independence.”)

In a follow-up article in Le Devoir, published January 18, 2010, QS co-leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir defined the party’s position on the wearing of “ostentatious” signs of personal religious belief as “neither obligation nor prohibition”: that is, no one should be required to wear such signs nor should they be prohibited from doing so if they so wished. The article strongly defended individual freedom of conscience and the need to protect it from state intrusion.

However, since then QS leaders have backtracked somewhat on the party’s adopted positions. Early this year Khadir and David gave critical support to the Charest government’s Bill 94, which would deny government-funded health care, education and child care services to all whose clothing prevents disclosure of their face, and would bar them from government and public-service employment. The bill patently targets a tiny number of Muslim women who wear niqabs or burqas.

And when some Sikhs sought to appear before a parliamentary committee to express their opposition to Bill 94, Amir Khadir added his vote on a PQ motion, supported by the other parties, to exclude them from the National Assembly because they were wearing their ceremonial dagger, the kirpan, even though it could hardly be termed a “weapon” as alleged.

Although the PQ campaigned prominently around narrow exclusionary identity issues, the QS platform in this election did not address them. It did not reiterate the party’s formal position in support of freedom of religious belief, although it did advocate affirmative action to promote the employment of immigrant women and visible and ethnic minorities in the public service.

Here, then, is Jean’s Dorion’s explanation of why he chose not to vote for the PQ and to vote instead for another party in this election.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Charter of secularism – When a separatist separates

The polls announced a PQ government and we have one. At least, my electoral turn-about cannot be treated as opportunistic; for the first time since the PQ existed, I did not vote for this party.

I was torn by this break. It will lose me some friends, disappoint some sincere militants, be misinterpreted. I did not reveal it prior to the election; it would have been seen as treachery instead of an opportunity for reflection. No, I am not the Guy Bertrand[1] of modern times. And I refuse in advance any invitation to come and relax at Sagard.[2] But a time comes when a decision must be taken.

I simply cannot come to the defense of the PQ’s Charte de la laïcité, a bogus project that if pursued will divide a society that is already too divided. It will make the independence of Quebec even more difficult by alienating us from liberal public opinion in the rest of the continent, the only sectors otherwise likely to respect our choice. And it will devastate for a long time our relationship with the greatest Francophone immigration Quebec has ever experienced — a milieu, even yesterday, relatively open to our aspirations. The PQ had four Muslim candidates in 2007, none this year. The chickens do not vote for Colonel Sanders.

Screen for intolerance

And we do not need any such charter! Apart from some minor adjustments, Quebec is already a secular society, as a result of measures taken by the Quiet Revolution, crowned by the deconfessionalization of the school system.[3] Bravo to the people who called for this — I was one of them — and to Pauline Marois who got it written into the law and the constitution.

Alas, when a political personality can boast of success in one area, she seems incapable of letting go, in the belief that “more of the same” [in English] will be even more pleasing. The secularization Part II project of the PQ would concord with Karl Marx’s saying that History repeats itself, the second time as farce.

What indeed are we to say about a party that votes to maintain a crucifix in the National Assembly but at the same time advocates a prohibition on working in the public and parapublic sectors for ordinary citizens who, in their personal capacity, wear a religious sign such as the Muslim scarf or the Jewish kippa? The crucifix does not prevent me from sleeping, but secularism as a screen for intolerance does.

I tried for four years to convince many PQ MNAs to avoid this trap. The final response to my discreet representations and to those of others was the parachuting of Ms. Djemila Benhabib into Trois-Rivières, an augury of a secularism locked twice-over.

I have read the books of this woman of a single cause. She has suffered much and seems very sincere to me. I would say as much of Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, the scourge of crime. Unfortunately, having suffered and having accounts to settle does not necessarily make someone the most judicious counsellor. The Senator’s remedies against crime (more repression than prevention) would increase criminality. The PQ’s discriminatory Charter, unparalleled in North America, would play into the hands of the Islamic extremists, who must be hoping for its adoption with baited breath.

Compatibility of views

I will always defend the right of anyone to criticize any institution, including religions. But the choice of a candidate by a party is not a matter of right but of relevance. I have known and appreciated quite a few Muslims, Sikhs and Jews; I was the government’s liaison agent with these communities. Ms. Benhabib’s parachute candidacy in Trois-Rivières is as great a misstep for the PQ in the Muslim community as the choice of Stéphane Dion as leader of the federal Liberals was for that party in French Quebec. In both cases, a party became infatuated with a member of a minority not because of that person’s efforts to increase understanding of the minority, but solely because of the compatibility of his or her views with the phobias of the majority.

I do not personally know each of the 200,000 Muslims in Quebec, but all those I do know, practicing or not, saw the parachuting of the author of Ma vie à contre-Coran [My life against the Koran] as a provocation. How would Christians react (practitioners or even those non-practitioners who want a crucifix in the National Assembly) to the candidacy of a person whose proudest merit was a book entitled My life against the Gospel? In my opinion, those responsible for this choice do not display the judgment and sensitivity required by a project as complex and demanding as the accession of Quebec to sovereignty. Like Maurice Duplessis, who also built part of his electoral career on the back of a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses), they are more interested in their re-election than in the future of Quebec as a society.

Is France a model?

Some seemingly respectable arguments are invoked against the presence in the public services of women wearing the scarf. That, it is claimed, is how they will be “liberated,” as if a job and salary were not the primary guarantors of their freedom. But the most obvious reason is the fear of what is alien, as the contradiction over the crucifix illustrates.

The second most important reason is probably, among some baby-boomers, an inverted legacy of a Quebec now gone: the obsessive hostility toward religions and scorn for their adherents. This hostility, this contempt will yield no good in a Quebec in which diversity is increasing. The stigmatization of believers is unlikely to create any empathy among and towards immigrants who, in their majority, attach great importance to their religion — Christian, Muslim, or other.

The model to be imitated, it appears, would be France, a country I passionately love, but not to the point of folly. Since the Second World War France has held the western world’s championship for its electorate’s support to an openly xenophobic party, if we consider both the scope and duration of that support. In France, looking like someone from North Africa will often have the police asking you for “Your papers!” every day — as reports none other than Djemila Benhabib in Ma vie à contre-Coran (p. 190).

And what about the angry young people from the immigrant communities who set fire to hundreds of cars each year on the night of July 14 [Bastille Day]; do we see such things in Montréal on the 24th of June [the Fête nationale], in Toronto on Canada Day, in New York on July 4?

Annoying the rest of the continent

Quebec is in America. Some of us are beginning to discover, with surprise, how much a secularism of exclusion shocks the prevailing ethic in the United States, as in Canada. On July 4, 2009, President Obama denounced the prohibition of the hijab in the West; he was criticized very little for that in his country. In Canada, three turban-wearing Sikhs, elected in majority non-Sikh ridings, sat in the House of Commons when I was there myself, without anyone taking offense. One of them is now a minister.

In Quebec, with the Charter planned by the PQ, he could not even be a clerk in a government liquor store. The countries of Protestant origins value freedom of conscience. In the United States, secularism means strict separation of Church from State, not a prohibition on the expression of beliefs.

Of course, we can choose to annoy all the rest of the continent, I have often done so myself on the language, but it is still necessary that the issue be worth the trouble. If we multiply the cases, we allow our adversaries to link them together in order to paint Quebec as a fortress of intolerance in all respects.

Charter of exclusion

Treating Québécois as racists is unfair, agreed: a recent poll showed we are more open to immigration than Ontarians. But when it comes to accusations of intolerance toward religious minorities, a good way to refute them, or to discredit those who make them, would be not to show ourselves as worse than our neighbours in this area.

There are Jews and Muslims everywhere in the United States and Canada, countries that have some sixty state or provincial legislatures with comparable powers, overall, to those of our National Assembly. Name me a single one of these legislatures or, in recent times, a major party that has proposed a charter of exclusion like the one advocated by the PQ. Halal and Kosher rites are practices in all these states and provinces. Name me one of their legislatures or a major party that has recently made such a song and dance over this (complete with a news conference!) as the PQ did in the National Assembly last March.[4]

Could it be that all these other legislatures, without exception, are controlled by “useful idiots” in the service of the Islamists? Might it not be, instead, that our insecurity and our religious antecedents sometimes inspire in us reflexes that are excessive, unfair and counter-productive? Of course, some will see in the singularity of our conduct some (further) proof of our intellectual and moral superiority. Chauvinism is the contrary of patriotism: instead of encouraging the nation to improve, we exalt its errors; and that generally ends up badly.

I have therefore left it to those who dream of living some day in the only corner of North America in which a mother could be deprived of a livelihood for wearing a Muslim scarf the responsibility of their project. I remain an independentist, a radical defender of French.

It was necessary to vote and I chose Option nationale (ON). This party had the good idea, in its platform, to advocate the secularism of public institutions, not the forced secularization of each of their employees. I know many of these militants, young people for the most part. They would not make that kind of mistake.

[Note by Le Devoir] Jean Dorion. A sociologist, the author has been a political attaché of Immigration Minister Jacques Couture, chief of staff of minister Gérald Godin, liaison officer with the cultural communities, president of the SSJB de Montréal, delegate general of Quebec in Tokyo and MP for the Bloc québécois.

[1] Guy Bertrand is a Quebec City lawyer, once a fervent sovereigntist (he even ran for the PQ leadership), who became an equally fervent federalist in the 1990s, and sometime later reverted to sovereigntism.

[2] A town in Charlevoix region containing the sumptuous residence of the very well-connected billionaire Paul Desmarais. It is frequented by the who’s who of the Quebec and international Francophone elite.

[3] In 1997, the addition of s. 93A to the Constitution Act, 1867 made possible the abolition of denominational school boards in Quebec and the reorganization of Quebec's school boards on the basis of language. Marois was the PQ minister of Education who piloted this constitutional amendment from Quebec’s side.

[4] André Simard, a PQ member of the National Assembly, with the support of his colleagues, campaigned in March against halal ritual slaughter practices, claiming (against all evidence) they were becoming the norm rather than the exception in Quebec.

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