It wasn’t too long ago in Quebec’s storied history that a miffed separatist leader blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for stealing the dream of a separate nation-state.
It seems that those “ethnics” haven’t stopped the sabotage and that the time has come to put them in their place.
At least that’s the narrative Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is not-so-subtly portraying with her new charter of values. It’s a “unifying” document, she claims. Of course it is — for “pure laine” Quebecers. No one else has a stake in the province or a right to counter her vision, she seems to be saying.
But the charter is actually more than just a jab at the religious minorities who helped build the province. It is, in fact, a jab at our entire Canadian identity (an added boon for the Parti Québécois?).
As authors and historians have pointed out over the years, our evolution into a multicultural and generally welcoming space has a lot to do with aboriginal values. In his 2008 book, A Fair Country, philosopher and author John Ralston Saul argues that First Nations culture permeated relationships, despite some concerted efforts to stamp it out. Concepts around shared governance, community and inclusiveness managed to infiltrate the highest echelons of power in this country, perhaps even leading indirectly to the embrace of an official multicultural policy in 1971, a policy that became and remains admired around the world and which has attracted the best and brightest minds to our shores.
“We are a people of aboriginal inspiration organized around a concept of peace, fairness and good government,” he writes. “That is what lies at the heart of our story, at the heart of Canadian mythology, whether francophone or anglophone.”
Further, Saul recognized a phenomenon that once again appears to be rearing its head, with Quebecers at the forefront of this unfortunate turn.
“Throughout the western world in the second half of the nineteenth century, middle-class, pew-chained and empire-obsessed civilizations gradually slipped toward the paranoid fears of the twentieth century. Fear of what? Fear of the loss of purity — pure blood, pure race, pure national traits and values and ties.”
He might as well be writing about today’s Quebec. Polls favouring the proposed charter indicate that Marois has tapped into a visceral paranoia of the “other” that sometimes haunts communities to tragic effect.
In Quebec, we have a minority afraid of its own minorities.
Just as the 1995 referendum on separation illustrated back then, it is Quebecers in rural parts of the province who are more likely to buy into the “us-verses-them” dichotomy.
Indeed, polls show higher support among rural Quebec for the charter even as critics, including constitutional experts, decry it as discriminatory and anti-democratic. Are they not aware of how desperately Quebec needs to employ its immigrants, and attract new ones?
Or does that matter little to those who simply want to pretend the province will never change, remaining a forced and static bastion of French culture and identity; a shared dream that negates the role and presence of the First Nations to begin with, and those minorities who came later?
As one young aboriginal activist told me, everything about their culture is sacred — religious. So would an aboriginal be able to come to work wearing a medicine pouch, or any other spiritual symbol? Not under this proposed charter.
How ironic then that the original inhabitants of the province would be prevented from expressing who they are in its public institutions.
But then again, to fully recognize the “other” would mean acknowledging a reality at odds with the PQ government’s narrative — a narrative that strikes at the very core of our collective identity and at the truth of our country’s history.
Amira Elghawaby is the Human Rights Coordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).