“Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” said William Murray, the 1st Earl of Masefield nearly three centuries ago. Justice demands that the National Assembly be condemned in the strongest terms for its unanimous adoption of the PQ resolution that “urges” Quebecers to avoid the “Bonjour-Hi” greeting. When a society begins attempts at legislating how people speak, it may be called many things but free is not one of them. It is precisely this society’s utter failure to get basic things right, that it’s governments — of whatever party — resort to exploiting division and discord to distract people from those failures. And if our elected officials of the current parties don’t see it that way, perhaps next time you vote and there is an independent candidate of courage vote for them.
Justice also demands a particular condemnation for those MNAs representing ridings with large anglophone populations who did not stand up and vote against this resolution. Carlos Leitao of Robert-Baldwin, Monsef Derraji of Nelligan, David Birnbaum of D’Arcy McGee, Marwah Rizqy of St.Laurent and Jennifer Maccarone of Westmount-St.Louis all voted for the resolution. Greg Kelley of Jacques-Cartier was out of Quebec City and NDG’s Kathleen Weil did not leave her office. Being present and voting NO was a moral duty for them all and the only appropriate response to such travesty. The time for symbolic gestures is long past.
Maccarone’s vote was inexplicable. As head of Laval’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board she was a frequent and robust defender of anglophone rights. And praised for it in these pages. Her turnaround can only be attributed to the influence of office. The compass is bent beyond repair if not broken
Birnbaum gave one of the saddest political exhibitions we have seen in years. After voting for the resolution he explained that his form of protest was to “rise slowly” in casting his yes vote. “Rising slowly?” Really? What made things more confusing is that he said that “he was comfortable with the motion’s wording because we can all agree on the need to preserve the French language and culture.” Is that what we’ve come to? Ready to accept any popular urban myth as policy in our legislatures? Whether or not the French language and culture was ever in “danger” is debatable. What is not debatable is that the OQLF’s own figures released a short time ago demonstrated that 95% of all people questioned were able to get themselves properly served in French. Indeed Mr. Birnbaum used that statistic to support his vote. What are we aiming for? The statiscally unatainable one hundred per cent? And even if that were so, how is that goal to be abetted by the Orwellian suppression of personal expression. His explanations are so devoid of logic they evoke an image of political Stockholm Syndrome.
We strongly criticized NDG’s Kathleen Weil at the time of the first Bonjour-Hi resolution because as head of the Anglo Secretariat she had a particular responsibility to protect our communities and vote no. This time she stayed in her office and would not come down to vote. How much more forcefully would her passionate words be felt if she had turned them into the act of voting no. It would have been a vote of particular conscience and consequence. As we wrote above, symbolic gestures are no longer enough.
As with “Pastagate,” “Spoongate” and all the other language gates, Quebec became a laughing-stock across the industrialized west with media from the Washington Post to the BBC reporting on the cleansing of minority language rights two years ago.But the damage — as always — is deeper than that. This is about the never-ending demonization of all non- Francophones. This is about the never-ending exploitation of fabricated Francophone fears. This is about the never-ending paralysis of Quebec stuck in continuing culture wars with politicians always appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is dangerous.
A free society is not free if its legislature tells people what to think. Or in what language to speak.That is what the National Assembly did. It “urges” Quebecers to think in the manner that they are instructed to. Reasonable people may question whether there is any intellectual honesty, courage or understanding of freedom in this National Assembly as we questioned it last in 2017.
Most francophones are themselves tired of the culture wars. They want expanded opportunity too. But it seems that once someone gains power, they attempt to pander to any vote even at the cost of principle. The argument that language restrictions bring social peace is disingenuous. Social peace is not a legitimate goal if it is the sole aim of a society. Social justice is however. And a just society does not limit free speech. This government must bring the suppression of expression to an end.
There is perhaps one ray of hope in this episode. The broad mass of Montrealers — of all ethnic and language origins — are deriding this overt display of mean and petty spirit. The people are smarter than the politicians. And gutsier. They are best exemplified by the salesgirl who when asked why she won’t drop “Hi” she looked right into the camera and stated with clarity and candour, “It’s about freedom of speech, right?” Yes it is. It so truly is.