Monday, October 30, 2017

Guest Article: What’s Going on in Québec? (Part 2: The Politics)

At the end of the last article, I mentioned the provincial consultation on systemic racism that Storm Alliance and La Meute were mobilizing against. So now I think it’s time to talk about what that is, and what has been happening in mainstream politics for the past 10 or so years.

I will spare you the history lesson, but, in a nutshell, centuries after the English conquest of present-day Canada and their takeover of New-France, Québec has retained a sense of belonging to the French and a feeling of being subjugated by the English. This makes for a kind of nationalism that differs from the rest of the country (a lot of it is actually a sense of opposition to the rest of the country) which is based on the “de souche” identity (white, of French descent, speaks a variant of Québecois French, culturally Catholic, mostly working or middle class, etc). The common discourse is that we were not colonizers, not even of the First Nations, but that we were the ones colonized by the English and that we are the ones being discriminated against -- which can be true in certain cases (less now than it was decades ago), but it is hard to reconcile this feeling with the concept of still being privileged in many other aspects of society. All of this to say that while the “de souche” identity is not marginalized in Québec (it is actually the overwhelming majority, around 87% of the population), a lot of the nationalist discourse presents it as such. While the idea of Western countries being afraid of losing their identity to immigration is not unique to Québec, the province has its own brand of it. I am in no way saying that Québecois are more nationalist or more racist than other provinces, just that it sometimes manifests in different ways.

Which brings us to “les accommodements raisonnables” (reasonable accommodations). While it is used in other places, this legal concept is very much a Québec issue. Stuck between the Canadian Charter of Rights and its multicultural philosophy and the yearning for the French concept of “laïcité”, which advocates for the removal of all religious signs from the public sphere, we have been debating about what constitutes a reasonable way of accommodating people from cultural minorities for over a decade. Starting with the case of a young Sikh student who dropped his ceremonial knife on the floor of his school in 2006, people became afraid that we were putting ourselves in danger by allowing minorities to follow their own traditions. The small town of Hérouxville even wrote a code of conduct for its 1300 citizens (all white and Christian) telling potential immigrants that they didn’t have the right to stone women or to do genital mutilation. Other highly mediatized cases (Muslims praying at a sugar shack, hijabis playing soccer, etc.) led to the creation, in 2007, of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, led by historian Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. After months of touring the province and hearing white people express their fear of the Other, they recommended that judges, prosecutors and police officers not wear any religious symbols while working for the State, but did not say much about accommodating people in the public sphere.

The provincial government having been led by the Liberals for years, nothing came of the consultations except a greater sense of duty for nationalist groups. Most of these groups are fringe political parties and citizen organizations who either advocate for a more secular public sphere or for a return to the good ol’ Catholic values because of course, when everyone was white and Catholic, we didn’t need to think about how to accommodate those who weren’t. The opposition parties also advocated for a return to traditional values and revived the nationalist flame that had been more or less dormant after the last separation referendum.

In 2012, the Parti Québecois took office with a minority government and, by 2013, presented the Québec Charter of Values which would forbid all State employees (health care professionals, provincial office workers, etc.) to wear any “ostentatious” religious symbols. They knew quite well that it would mostly affect Muslim women who wear head coverings and people who wear turbans and kippas, but they also mentioned that crosses or crucifixes that were “too big” would get banned too. This was after France and Belgium had completely banned face-covering veils in 2011 and many advocated for the same in Québec. It is important to mention that less than 2% of the population of Québec is Muslim, around 1.25% is Jewish and 0.12% is Sikh, and that these people mostly live in Montréal and not in small and medium towns were the nationalist ideology is predominant. There was a public consultation on Québec values and again, it was mostly white people being afraid of becoming the minority (at least that is what was mediatized the most). The PQ was defeated in the 2014 election and the charter never became law, but it is still something they use during their campaigns.

Then came 2015, the Syrian immigrants, the worldwide rise of the far-right, the creation of groups like La Meute and PEGIDA Québec and with them, a greater feeling of islamophobia all over the province. Québec City and the surrounding areas have for years been especially fond of right-wing discourse, primarily on talk radio. They often pride themselves on being different than the more progressive and multicultural city of Montréal.

The Grande Mosquée de Québec, part of the Islamic Cultural Center of Québec City, was the target of different hate crimes in the recent past (though not all of them were deemed hate crimes by the law). They received a pig’s head wrapped up with a bow, their president got his car set on fire, and, in early 2017, 27 year-old Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire inside the mosque, killing 6 people and injuring 19 others. He was known to his peers for having far-right racist, anti-feminist and all around hateful beliefs.

A lot of the far-right groups had started circulating conspiracy theories about George Soros, the New World Order, a plan to replace white people with people of colour, and the need to defend “our culture.” They incorporated the shooting into these conspiracies, saying that it was ordered by Trudeau to make white Québecois look bad, that there was a second Muslim shooter who was Bissonnette’s gay lover (!), and other such nonsense. The premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard, was invited to a popular talk-show following the shooting and had to warn people that hate speech would not be tolerated, even online. Shortly after, a man was arrested for issuing threats to the Muslim community on Facebook. Then came motion M-103 at the federal level. This fueled the far-right’s conspiracies about a plan to shut them up with immigration and Sharia and got them more active in the streets, like we saw in the last article.

Over the last few months, premier Couillard started planning a public consultation on systemic discrimination and racism. At first, the provincial Commission des droits de la personne was asked to lead this consultation, but they lost the contract after being accused of shady managing. The opposition parties were against the idea of studying racism and discrimination because they were afraid it would paint Québecois as racists. The far-right, of course, was convinced that it was all part of the plan to demonize the “de souche” people and to progressively remove our rights. It even reunited La Meute and Storm Alliance who are now planning a demonstration against the consultation in Québec City on November 25. Amidst all of this, the government changed its focus and gave up the racism angle of the consultation which will now be focused on employment discrimination and Francization. La Meute and Storm Alliance are not giving up their protest though, they just asked their members to pick something to be angry about and march against that instead, whatever that is.

Just after changing the mandate of that consultation, the Couillard government passed Bill 62, scheduled to take effect in July 2018. This law bans face coverings for anyone working for the public sector or, more astonishingly, for anyone receiving public services, notably public transit. This disproportionately affects Muslim women, even though it is supposed to be about the neutrality of the State. It is just another Islamophobic bill passed to counterbalance the opposition Couillard received for daring to talk about systemic racism. But the far-right don’t see it that way. Even if it’s seemingly everything they want (forcing women to remove their Niqabs and other face coverings), they see is as a Trojan horse for radical Islam. They are so convinced that Couillard (along with Trudeau, Obama, Clinton, Merkel, etc.) is an “Islamo-fascist” that they even think State-sanctioned Islamophobia is Islamic, and there are plenty of more mainstream groups and public figures who share their belief.

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