Sometimes I really hate this province. Born in London, England to parents from the West Indies, I’ve lived in Montreal since the age of four. I learned the language, played hockey, made friends and spent many a night stomping my feet to Charlebois and Vigneault wannabes at Les 2 Pierrots on rue St. Paul in Old Montreal. My girlfriend’s last name might have been Boisvert, but I never felt like I belonged.
Now much has been written lately about Quebec’s latest foray into cultural engineering — state imposed secularism, laity or laïcité. Premier François Legault says his Coalition Avenir Quebec government’s proposed Bill 21 is moderate and a reflection of the values of a vast majority of Quebecers. In no way, says he, does it go against the religious values of citizens because everyone will be free to practise their faiths in their private lives.
Well, who can argue with that? Follow these new rules and nobody will get hurt. But it reminds me of another set of laws that were intended to keep the majority safe from what the minority did at home. In order to justifiably redress past grievances against English-speaking bosses and overlords, French-speaking Quebecers passed legislation that not only protected their language, but also put limits and restriction on the use of English in the public square and in government jobs and services.
One can cynically argue that, like Bill 101, Quebec’s 40-year-old language law, Bill 21 will add new level of restrictions on government jobs for les autres. A sort of perpetual affirmative action plan for French-speaking de souche Quebecers.
As a black anglophone, I’ve always felt like a double minority in this province, always knowing there was a glass ceiling above my head. Unlike in almost every other province in this country, I’ve rarely seen a top Quebec government official from an ethnic or linguistic minority group. And I’ve never seen a police chief or fire chief for that matter. Now we’re in for more of the same.
Combined, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews make up under 3% of Quebec’s population — and I’ll bet my last dollar that most of them live on or around the island of Montreal. A Muslim woman who choses to cover her head with a hijab might be doing so because of her faith, but also with respect to a tradition of modesty. A bearded Sikh who wears a turban and carries a kirpan — a small dagger — is only doing what his religion requires of him. A Jewish man who wears a kippah is doing so out of respect for his religious beliefs and like the others, not as an affront to yours.
Now, the CAQ’s electoral stomping grounds are everywhere but the island of Montreal, in the more homogeneously white and francophone parts of the province. There is nothing wrong with that. But as the uncle of some guy who pranced around in red spandex tights once said: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Because you can doesn’t mean you should. Because your people outnumber les autres does not mean that you should gang up on them. This is a lesson you learn at a very young age when you’re the one living amongst les autres.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who took down the crucifix in city hall, argued that the bill would harm the city's diverse population. She’s right. The crucifix may also be taken off the wall behind the speaker’s chair in Quebec’s National Assembly once the bill is passed, but what about the rest of the province? I bet the mayors of Quebec City, Levis, Baie Saint-Paul, Hérouxville and Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! have no intention of taking down their crucifixes and will be more than happy to ban hijab-, turban-, and kippah-wearing citizens from government employ — if any even live there and bother apply.
Civil liberties groups, certain municipalities and school boards have vowed to fight this bill and they should. While Premier Legault, in a rush to settle the issue once and for all, says he will work to "unite as many Quebecers as possible" behind the proposed law, his appeal for calm falls flat because his draft legislation also invokes the notwithstanding clause to pre-emptively protect it from constitutional challenges.
Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said public bodies and municipalities will be required to go along with the law, or there will be consequences. "One thing's for sure, once the bill is adopted by the National Assembly, it will become law, and the school board will have to apply the law. That's the way it works in our society," he said. Segregationist governors in the deep south used to say the same thing but that didn’t make them right.
So today it’s a Sikh boy or a young Muslim girl, playing hockey and figure skating, clapping their hands to some Cœur de Pirate or Marie Mai wannabe with their friends named Tremblay and Bouchard at some hipster bar on rue St. Denis. I wonder if they’ll ever feel like they belong. This being Quebec, and Quebec being what it is, I doubt it.
Sometimes I really do hate this province.