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September 22, 2013

Quebec's Charter of Wrongs

The Canadian Charger

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Back in 1946, the state of Georgia had a county unit system of voting for the state-wide party primary elections.

In those days, the Democratic primaries in the South were the only elections that mattered.  Urban counties had six votes, towns four, and rural areas two.  Governor Eugene Talmadge said that he could win if he carried every county that didn’t have a streetcar.  He relied on the votes of the most uneducated and pro-segregation segments of the population in the Georgia hinterland.

While the Parti Québécois government does not have the rigged electoral system that elected Talmadge, it also relies on the least sophisticated, most tradition-bound regions of the territory. 

While the leadership of the PQ are not themselves consciously racist, they, as they say in French, “jouent la carte raciste”—play the racist card.  The roots of ethnic bigotry run deep in the province.

Turning again to the American experience, the acerbic critic Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, has this definition of a Yankee: “In Europe, an American.  In the Northern States of the Union, a New Englander. In the Southern States, the word is unknown. (See Damyank.)”  Similarly in Quebec a few decades ago an Anglais would be a maudit Anglais (damn Anglais), and a Jew a maudit Juif.  There were virtually no Arabs or South Asians at that time.  As recently as 2008, a survey found 27% of French Canadian respondents had an unfavorable attitude toward Jews, almost four times the rate for respondents in English Canada.

This prejudice against Jews was expressed in wide-spread discrimination, for example limiting their enrolment in universities with a quota system. 

Then anti-immigrant sentiment found expression in the Hérouxville fiasco, when in 2007 the town passed a code of conduct for immigrants forbidding the stoning of women or burning them alive and of female genital mutilation.  There were no immigrants in Hérouxville.  The impact of the Hérouxville code of conduct was such that the then-Premier Jean Charest could only call the code “exaggerated”.  Instead of denouncing the bigotry, he established the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to survey attitudes and produce a report on “reasonable accommodation.” 

Before getting to their report, a further word on the affaire Hérouxville.  The fact of prejudiced attitudes toward people who are not present is not unusual.  In pre-war Germany anti-Semitism was especially strong in Bavaria, where there were few if any Jews.  Both in Hérouxville and Bavaria, fear of change and of modernity is what drives the hostility toward the absent targeted group.

Gérard Bouchard is a sociologist and a separatist, while Charles Taylor is a philosopher who once ran for office on an NDP ticket.  Following consultations across the province, they recommended that judges, crown prosecutors, police, prison guards, and the president and vice-president of the National Assembly be prohibited from wearing religious symbols but that all other public employees be free to do so. 

Both of them are opposed to the PQ’s new Charter of Quebec Values.

This Charter proposes to prohibit employees in the public sector from wearing “ostentatious” signs of religious identity.  It would also prevent persons seeking service from the government from doing so. 

Aside from the serious question as to why there is a need for such interference in personal life, there are very practical concerns.  How ostentatious is ostentatious?  Bernard Drainville, the Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions (a euphemism if there ever was one) says that “common sense” will reign, that it will not be necessary to measure the size of a cross, for instance, but if a decision is challenged and goes to court, the issue will indeed be how big is big. 

Second is the issue of receiving service.  Will an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a wig or a Muslim woman in a hijab be turned away at the welfare office?  What about a Sikh presenting himself at hospital with a turban and a broken foot?

When Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau publicly supported striking asbestos workers, Duplessis had the Church remove him and banish him to pastoral care in a British Columbia nursing home.

PQ Premier Pauline Marois says that the Charter is designed to defend the equality of men and women.  Well, the misogyny of the Church and its influence in the Duplessis government prevented women from voting in provincial elections till 1940.  That crucifix in the National Assembly should remind us of that fact.  And implementation of the Charter will have its most important impact on Muslim women, driving those wearing a hijab (very few wear a niqab) from the public service, even as child care workers.

So what is this all about? 

The PQ leads a minority government.  The Liberals, the second party, are totally opposed to the Charter.  The third party, Coalition Avenir Québec or CAQ advocates a policy closer to Bouchard-Taylor. Hence, in its present form the Charter cannot pass in the current session.  But the PQ can certainly use it in the next election to win the votes of the xenophobes in the hinterland.  Will that be enough to make up for the losses they are bleeding from more tolerant separatists?

Maria Mourani, the cross-wearing MP of Lebanese descent thrown out of the Bloc Québécois caucus for her opposition to the Charter is one of many prominent concerned Montreal separatists unwilling to go along with the PQ on this one.

Yet, should the PQ win the next election and then pass the Charter, the courts will strike it down.  Will Quebec then use the notwithstanding clause? Marois has said it wouldn’t, but don’t bet on it.

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