Few commentaries in recent years have gone to the heart of the pathetic delusions of the Quebec malaise as eloquently and candidly as a column by Nathalie Elgrably of the Montreal Economic Institute that appeared in "Le Journal de Montreal" and "Le Journal de Quebec" last December. She apty titled it "Ce n'est pas la motion qui fait la nation". It's not the motion that makes the nation. More than an answer to the political imperatives that forced the nation motion as a counter-attack to Bloc Quebecois tactics in the House of Commons, Elgrably held up a mirror to Quebec.
Like the "Portrait of Dorian Gray", many did not like what she forced them to see. Though her critique came from an economic perspective, her broader theme was very applicable to what we are seeing in the current "reasonable accommodation" debate in this province. As her title illustrates, words are not enough to make a nation nor to sanitize illegitimate demands and latent insecurities. To this one must add that no amount of words can cloak simmering prejudice either.
In the quote above she makes the point that nationalist leaders in Quebec have a visceral need for recognition and acceptance by the rest of Canada. That this need is so intense that it reduces them to the level of near supplication in order to obtain it. As we have seen however, Quebec's version of supplication is "chantage amical" at every turn and for every support, subvention and status. But as she concludes, true respect "and one might add true self-respect "is never obtained by begging or blackmail. It has to be earned. Words are not enough.
Yet today's Quebec is in love with words. Its political and intellectual chattering classes are obsessed with what is called here "optique". Optics. Substance rates a distant second. In legislative assemblies, universities and press rooms, words are used as a gloss to cover any discoloration in the vaunted Quebec model much as a plasterer will disguise disfiguration on a wall with "faux marbre". False marble. And "faux marbre" is what we are seeing in Quebec's earnestness and eagerness to prove itself a "progressive" society in its latest obsession with the paralysis of self-analysis on pluralism and "reasonable accommodation". In Quebec, denial is truly not just a river in Egypt.
Ground zero for all this is of course the small Mauricie town of Herouxville that passed a municipal "charter" that included affirmations, among others, that women will not be stoned; faces will not be veiled; and the word Christmas will continue to be used. Immigrants are welcome but they must adapt to Quebec "values".
Taken alone, and superficially, this minor outcry would almost seem an exercise in sarcastic repudiation of political correctness and the ever-growing parochial demands of Islam worldwide. Indeed, many American media sources reported on Herouxville as an example of Quebec standing shoulder-to-shoulder with western liberal pluralism and the threat it now faces. After all, if this represents a defence of Quebec "values" then Quebec must truly have succeeded in its "Revolution tranquille", its quiet revolution, and accepted fidelity to free thought; separation of state and faith and repudiation of its pre-1960 xenophobia of "sang et langue", blood and language. But therein lays the rub.
This debate is not, and should not be, about accommodating the cacophony of growing demands by every group under the sun. Ever-increasing demands based on race or creed or religion are inherently "unreasonable" and no liberal society based on universal principles can "accommodate" every diversity and stand for anything meaningful. The true debate that is needed is about the ability of Quebec to acculturate itself to liberal universal principles and stop making the same unreasonable particularist demands on the body politic of Canada and on its non-Francophone citizens. All the current talk in Quebec today about "reasonableness" and "values" is just a smokescreen to avoid that debate and to deflect from the daily reality that Quebec is on a road back to the future. Back to a revived "grande noirceur".
Those of us who have lived through the past three decades of "kulturkampf" "culture war "in "La Belle Province" have learned never to look at any event in isolation. Rather, we tend to look around 360 degrees to see what else is happening in the Quebec tableaux. It's our own home-grown built-in sanity insurance. Kind of like anti-lock brakes for those black-iced Quebec roads. You know the skid is coming you just don't know where.
You see, for those of us considered "les autres", the others, not pure-bred Francophones "vieille souche", whenever we hear the code words of "Quebec values" the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. An early warning system if you like. And Herouxville took place against a backdrop of just such black ice that tends to cling to the Laurentian out-croppings of rock in the winter like those suffocating plastic bags cryovaced onto carcasses of meat. That's why many of us are overcome not by feelings of heart-pounding pride but rather by stomach-turning nausea from the sickly sweet scent of more self-delusion and thinly-veiled hypocrisy.
Whatever those "values" that Quebec constantly boasts of are, they are certainly not in any tradition of classic western liberal pluralism. In fact they are even divorced from the French republican model that jealously guards not only a separation between church and state but vigorously seeks to enforce an equitable secularism in its public life. Quebec's "values" are much more in line with the classic statement of Andrei Gromyko the former Soviet Foreign Minister. "What's mine is mine "he said. "What's yours is negotiable."
Events surrounding the Herouxville declaration are quite telling. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe gave eloquent voice to "openness" and the "progressiste" nature of Quebec. Yet when he was asked about the suggestion that crucifixes be removed from public buildings, including the National Assembly, he quickly put on the brakes. The crucifixes were part of "Quebec tradition" he said.
Not to be outdone, a group of Francophone day-care teachers in Quebec's largest school board raised their voices to object to the fact that Jewish and Muslim teachers got paid for their religious holidays as well as the Christian ones. Would they then be willing to give up their paid religious holidays and have everyone take a set number of paid pedagoligical days off? Ah no. They want to keep those days and the Christian holidays.
ADQ leader Mario Dumont weighed in with his opinion that "Quebec's values were first inspired by old-stock Europeans and their religious traditions". Yet still asserted that Quebec is welcoming to all. Well that should give "les autres" comfort.
A Leger Marketing poll commissioned by Quebec's largest French newspaper and television network demonstrated that 59% of Quebecers considered themselves racist to one degree or another. An astonishing figure outside of Okeefenokee Swamp if the percentage was half that. Yet what was even more troubling were the ads promoting the poll. Below the question "a…tes-vous raciste?" were pictures of Hasidic Jews and Chador-clad Muslim women. Since when do religious beliefs have anything to do with race? Yet in today's Quebec that is the subliminal message that still goes out more than 50 years after Premier Maurice Duplessis used his infamous Padlock Law to close Frank Roncarelli's restaurant because Roncarelli had become a Jehovah's Witness and Duplessis hated the witnesses with a passion.
On the heels of the Mouvement Montrealais Français's successful boycott threat against Esso's plan to change the name of its gas station shops from "Marche Express" to "On the Run" as they are everywhere else "and as permitted by Quebec's language law "provincial Liberal Minister Line Beauchamp decided to declare that there was still not enough French in downtown Montreal and that more should be done to promote "the common language" of Quebec society. Didn't she get the memo that English is an official language? Somebody should also tell her that the population of the island of Montreal is now more than 50% non-Francophone and non-Anglophone.
All this in a matter of eight weeks! So what's the message? The message is that Quebec is still wedded to "sang and langue". Blood and language. "Ein volk! Ein Kultur! "One people. One culture." And that message is being proclaimed, both directly and subliminally, so often and so egregiously that it has created a culture characterized by one over-riding veneer. Prejudice. A prejudice that makes Quebec incapable of putting into place what should really characterize a progressive civil society in Canada. An inclusive, secular, bi-lingual civic structure of public institutions and services that gives no privilege or preference to any group based on parochial particularities but rather celebrates principles of our universal commonality. There need be no "reasonable accommodation" to anything but those principles. No Herouxville charters. But first we must put those principles into practice. Not merely pay lip-service to them with false pieties. And no amount of opportunistic "optique" gloss can cover up that harsh reality.
This is not to say that there are not many true progressives in all facets of Quebec society. There are. Like Germain Belzile, the Hautes etudes commerciales lecturer, who organized a bold public letter in La Presse signed by dozens of other public intellectuals "including former PQ Minister Jacques Brassard - urging this province to come out of its shell and recognize the world we are living in. These are the true heirs of the very real progressive strain in Quebec history running from Papineau to Lafontaine to Cartier and to Laurier who personified it best when he said, "The proudest boast of my public life is that I have been excommunicated by Roman priests and condemned by Protestant parsons."
Sadly however, almost a half-century after Lesage rolled in with his "équipe de tonnerre", they are overwhelmed by a resurgent reactionary strain that has always swung like a pendulum through Quebec's history. The reactionary inability of Quebec to come to terms with its past. And therein lays the problem.
The philosopher George Santayana once wrote that "Those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them." In Quebec one can easily say that "Those who perpetuate lies about the past are condemned to be imprisoned by them." And that is at the heart of the Quebec malaise. It is a society that has permitted the perpetuation of the big fat lie through generations of political leaders who have exploited it for electoral gain and greater Provincial power regardless of what party they came from. They have all used the philosophy of "divide and conquer" creating a Francophone majority riddled by self-doubt driven by jealousy of others self-belief.
The heart of the lie is that some great injustice was done to a "native" Francophone people in their "terre natale" - their native land "by the English who conquered Quebec in 1763 and kept the French under their heel. The reality is that the French came here as imperialists for the King of France and slaughtered the real native people "the aboriginals "and stole their lands. The English came and killed Frenchmen and aboriginals and gave a third of this land to a private company. And who was the Francophone power that signed the Concordat of 1763 that basically said to the English, "You take commerce. Give us our people to educate and we'll keep most of them down on the farms." The very same French Catholic clergy that every Francophone leader in Quebec since Lesage once denounced, yet whose "traditions" are today protected by ex-Maoist Duceppe; lauded by Dumont; and instinctively knee-jerk mirrored by most of "le Quebec profonde". Stalin once said that the broad mass of the people will believe a big lie rather than a small one if repeated often enough. That's what's happened here.
Instead of maintaining the entrenched acquired rights of the founding European cultures and religions that led to mounting demands from other cultural and religious groups for the same advantages "since they pay the same taxes - Quebec should have had the courage to abolish all the entrails of its very questionable past. A just society cannot be built by apportioning out to other groups the same mistaken privileges that were the remnants of a colonial era long since buried. You can't make a right by piling a wrong on top of another wrong. Yet, with rare exceptions, those cultural and religious wrongs have been protected by bodyguards of lies from leaders of all political stripes.
Arguments for Quebec sovereignty, or the cultural supremacy of Francophones based on nativist claims, have no moral foundation in the history of this Province. Yet no political leader has spoken these hard truths to Quebec in a very long time. It is more convenient to pander to Quebec's demands on language, immigration and a host of other powers to gain electoral advantage based on the argument that it is better to trade some national consequence just to keep Canada together. Well that argument no longer suffices if indeed it ever did. Because all these political maneuverings have merely created a culture of extreme prejudice in Quebec with a population unable to compete in the North American reality and therefore constantly on the look-out for someone, or some group, to blame for its own failings. And each devolution of Federal power is met by increasing demands for more from Quebec Premiers of whatever political stripe.
Even today's debate on transfer payments fails to address another big lie in the Quebec catechism. The 1954 provincial election was won by Duplessis on the issue of Quebec getting its own income tax. The agreement on that tax collection power included crediting back Ottawa on transfer payment amounts. Quebec has never credited one cent. So who owes what to whom?
While politicians make political capital, minorities "whether racial, linguistic or religious "suffer daily in Quebec. The message and metaphor of the struggle here is one of civil rights. Though the prejudice suffered here is not as draconian as in the American South in the sixties "thanks to Federal protections we have here that were missing in the South "the damage is just as overt.
You might ask why stay in such a place. The reason one is compelled to stay is that wherever and whenever one finds injustice in this world one is obligated to fight it. Submission and retreat is neither an option nor an answer for anyone of conscience and character. Nor is it appropriate to look for a place of "greater" injustice to expend our energies in. Fate has put us here. And more importantly, Canada has given us much. To those to whom much is given, from them much is expected. At least the responsibility to take a stand.
It is time to speak truth to the people of Quebec. To quote Nathalie Elgrably again from an article she wrote for the Institute's journal "Barricades" entitled « Vers une vraie Révolution tranquille », « Ce ne sont plus les balises imposees par les hommes de foi qui limitent les libertes individuelles, ce sont celles inventees par les hommes d'etat. » But if these "statesmen", be they Francophone or Anglophone, won't act to repair the nullifications of individual liberty and reverse the interpositions of cultural prejudice, then maybe it's time for one of "les autres" to raise a voice of authenticity and courage and say "Quebec, ca suffit. Quebec, it's enough." The assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers was once encouraged to move from Jackson, Mississippi to Atlanta where he could continue his work in the civil rights struggle in relative safety after having received countless death threats. Evers answered, "I don't know if I'm going to heaven or hell but I'm going from Jackson." It is a call that should resonate with all who would keep faith with the vision of Thomas D'Arcy McGee that, "There is room in this Northern Dominion --under one flag and one set of laws--for one great people. There is no possibility for that greatness--under that same flag and those same laws - if we succumb to a hundred squabbling particularities."
Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal www.iapm.ca ; publisher of
BARRICADES Magazine www.barricades.ca ; and host of “The Last Angry Man” on Corus Radio’s New 940 Montreal. He can be reached at: email@example.com and at firstname.lastname@example.org