It’s no coincidence that Quebec has been mired for months, if not years in an orchestrated and profoundly unsettling debate on its cultural identity and place in the world. This “values” showdown culminated with Monday’s election and an irrefutable rejection of the Parti Québécois’ brand of soft ethnocentric nationalism. The party chose today for the penultimate referendum on identity; they’ve lost and humiliated themselves in the process.
The PQ’s values putsch came at an opportune moment. The free flow of information and culture worldwide is at its peak and those in power are either accepting the web-powered spring toward expanded human rights or fighting frantically to maintain the retrograde fiefdoms created in their image.
Desperate baby boomers among Quebec’s nationalist elite have a similar problem: Their cosmopolitan children are undermining the sovereignty movement, which has for too long relied on little more than folksy jingoism, creative accounting and empty promises. Desperate times call for desperate measures: An identity crisis (or a series of crises, really, over years), to polarize and hastily define who the Québécois will be outside of the Canadian context, before the Québécois are ready to define it themselves. The election results are clear and bring a dual message: Quebecers will not be defined along the PQ’s ethnocentric lines and they certainly are not comfortable being defined by the PQ outside of Canada, for now. No, sovereignty is most certainly not dead (one million still voted PQ), but it is on life support, particularly with millennials.
Roughly two-thirds of Quebecers are uninterested in exploring secession from Canada, and the PQ’s narrow definition of Quebec values certainly isn’t helping. That hasn’t prevented the party from both discretely and, in moments of candour, overtly promoting independence using, naturally, government resources with the consent of a minority of voters.
The modern PQ’s prevailing philosophy is ‘wedge,’ and they’ve been relentless in provoking petty, regressive debates with Canada. It’s been an embarrassment, particularly during the past 18 months. There were failed attempts to strengthen prohibitive language laws that sought to diminish the presence of other languages (particularly English) in the public sphere, to pit a sovereignist-led commission on employment insurance against the federal government for no apparent reason, and to use the province’s most important bridge, the Champlain, as a rather large pawn in a jurisdictional chess match; the PQ failed to galvanize voters with all of these issues.
Then there were more organic embarrassments that highlight government-sponsored culture wars like Pastagate, a scandal that followed my publication of a blog on a fairly common abuse of power by the “language police,” the Office québécois de la langue française, whose inspectors are told English and Italian words like “pasta” on menus is an attack on Quebec’s Francophone character. One year after publishing the story, the OQLF targeted my communications firm for what they interpreted as a violation of Quebec’s language charter (was it something I said?). Though the law predates the internet as we know it, that hasn’t prevented the Office from regulating website, and even social media content.
Quebec’s codification of linguistic insecurity is detrimental to entrepreneurship, social harmony and freedom of expression – and the PQ wanted to make it even worse. But as I wrote following Pastagate, this is all old news; it can sometimes be an uphill climb for minorities, let alone mouthy minorities, to succeed in a society whose government and media have formed a consensus that paints your mother tongue as a threat to theirs. It’s equally difficult for many non-Francophones to develop a love and respect for French language when government resorts to regulation and repression above education and persuasion. The Liberals are no better; former Premier Jean Charest, hired more OQLF language inspectors than the PQ has in recent years. The more bureaucrats searching for remnants of colonialism, the more likely said bureaucrats are to suffer from an “excès de zèle,” as the OQLF put it so eloquently in its Pastagate mea culpa (French is a beautiful language, even when used punitively).
The PQ’s hallmark identity gambit, though, is most offensive because it targets ethnicity, and you can’t run thousands of years of religious tradition through Google Translate, no matter how irrational those traditions may seem to the outside observer. The Charter of Values would have prohibited “ostentatious” religious symbols (hijabs, turbans, kippas, etc.) worn by public sector employees, and private sector workers whose employers receive government subsidies (which is pretty much everyone, including multinationals like Warner Bros. and Bombardier). It does not explicitly prohibit things like the display of the Christian crucifix above the speaker’s chair in the legislature, constant funding to renovate Quebec’s many Churches, tax breaks for religious institutions of all stripes and subsidies for private schools that indoctrinate children – the proposed law is described by author and democratic institutions minister Bernard Drainville as a “secularism” plan.
To combat fundamentalism and ghettoization, Drainville said (the day after Canada’s last few soldiers left Afghanistan, many of whom built schools for girls) that he would prevent young women wearing niqabs or burqas from taking university classes (there are a statistically insignificant number of students who cover their faces at school). To support the plan, he tabled strange evidence, including a UK “study” where the abstract begins by asking, “ever wondered about the appropriateness of…Muslim doctors displaying pictures of Osama son of Laden...?” Drainville also cited (then said he did not cite) an obsolete Nebraska law circa 1919 which targeted Catholic nuns, public school teachers, who wore habits – the Ku Klux Klan was known for promoting such laws in a few states at the time. Drainville himself, by all accounts, is probably not a racist, but is physically incapable of making an intellectually honest argument for his Charter and does not seem to understand secularism as a concept.
This cultural insecurity and persecution complex, significantly more pervasive in Quebec’s political and media class than in the general population, manifests itself in Drainville and outgoing Premier Pauline Marois as pettiness, but some of their colleagues have been downright intolerant. One PQ candidate was forced to resign after Facebook posts surfaced suggesting he wanted to “fuck Islam,” while another who remained on the ballot has written in the past that male circumcision is “rape” and the sale of kosher and halal meats fund religious fighters – leaders in Montreal’s Jewish community described that last bit as a common “anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.”
Marois used feminist and actress Janette Bertrand, 89, as a political prop; the woman for whom the pro-Charter of Values, nationalist media-sponsored Janettes movement was named. Even after Bertrand went on an incoherent rant during a press conference about Muslims and rich Anglos from McGill University eating up her pool time; after she said she would be “afraid” to be treated by a healthcare worker wearing a hijab, Marois stood by the bizarre, intolerant comments.
Marois stood by Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud when he feared the election could be “stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada.” She stood by Mailloux as well, saying the candidate’s “writings are eloquent. I respect her point of view…The Parti Québécois is not an anti-Semitic party.” When I gave Marois the opportunity to say something – anything – to Quebec Jews and Muslims to help mend the wounds, she had only platitudes about apologies having been made and noted that “we have meetings each year and we will continue to have these meetings” with members of the Semitic communities. Marois’ tolerance of intolerance is matched by few Canadian politicians in recent memory. May her replacement learn from her hurtful mistakes.
“A vote for the PQ is a vote for the Charter of Values,” Drainville said repeatedly in the final days of the campaign, grasping at whatever shreds of half-baked policy the PQ had left that hadn’t been demolished by opposition parties and media (at least the 60% of Quebec media not controlled by new PQ legislator and probable leadership contender Pierre Karl Péladeau). Liberals, despite running a passable campaign and tainted by past corruption scandals, find themselves with a majority government by default because Marois’ team was just that offensive. Quebecers sent the PQ a strong message, even in rural regions where we were told support for the party’s ethnic paranoia would be strong; not strong enough, apparently.
Let this be a lesson to our sovereignists: Quebecers are more tolerant, inclusive and proud of their identity than their nationalist elite. If nationalism is to survive in Quebec, or anywhere in the developed world, it will have to be in a humane context; my generation will not tolerate anything less.