Friday, 13 September 2013

La Charte des valeurs.

This week in the news and it has been the only item in the news, no it's not Syria or diplomatic moves between Russia and the USA, it is about the Charte des valeurs du Québec. It is being proposed by the current Provincial Government in Quebec City, which is a minority government led by Madame Pauline Marois as Premier. She is an old warrior of the Separatist cause and a veteran of controversial causes.

At this moment it is a project, the public in Quebec is being asked for opinions on this project of a Charter of Values. If this project becomes a bill to be tabled at the National Assembly ( Quebec's Parliament), the Charter would define was is called common values. It should be remembered that Quebec never signed on to the Canadian Constitutional agreement of 1982 and did not accept the Canadian Charter of Rights because Quebec had its own Charter of Rights voted in 1975.

It is also a battle between two visions of Canada, one is the Multicultural policy of the Federal Government adopted in 1976 and the other is the Integration (Melting Pot) approach of Quebec.

Quebec for many years has had an official policy of selecting it's immigrants from almost exclusively Maghreb countries of North Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and French Africa, with some ( a small number) immigrants from France and other French speaking countries. Most immigrants settle in Montreal who now has a population of about 3.5 million people.

This means that Montreal is French speaking and very cosmopolitan, many neighbourhoods have important diverse communities while the rest of Quebec is mostly made up of old French Canadian families with no or very little visible minorities. The proposed Charter would ban in the Public Service all religious symbols, including turbans for Sikhs, Islamic head or face coverings or veils for women, Jewish Kippah and Christian crosses worn around one's neck. What the Quebec Government is really targeting is Muslim women. Many in Quebec are offended by this face and head covering, all kinds of beliefs and stories circulate around such coverings. It is misunderstood and much of it comes from ignorance. It is believed that women who wear such covering do so not because of religious belief but because they wish to present themselves as different or are forced to wear such covering because they are forced to do so by their husbands. We already had incidents with Sikhs who wear turbans while playing on a sports team. Sports federations have banned such players on safety grounds amid great controversy. As for Jews, they are also targeted by this Charter project simply because the Charter claims to be universal in its ban of religious symbols in the public service. Though Jews have been present in Canada and Quebec and very much an integral part of society for at least 200 years. Same for the Sikhs who have been in Canada since 1898, Queen Victoria's last Jubilee, nothing new here with the colourful turbans.

Why this project now? Do we need it? Is there really a threat to French speaking culture in Quebec? What does common values mean in a modern pluralistic society?

I believe that this project was presented now because the Parti Québécois is in a minority government and needs a cause to rally the troops, the hardcore Nationalists who represent about 30% of the electorate. The economy in Quebec is in deep trouble, the debt is out of control, Quebec is often called the Greece of Canada, personal debt per capita at $21,000 is the highest by far in Canada. The solutions to economic problems would be very unpopular and not exactly made to win elections.  So this project of a Charter of Values is far easier to present and defend despite all the controversy it is creating.

Already well over 100 intellectuals who represent the Arts and Culture in Quebec, some very well known names have rejected this idea of a Charter. Some Indépendantiste politicians have also rejected the project to the dismay of the Parti Québecois. It has to be understood that the Nationalist ideas of the 1970's and 1980's are passé and Madame Marois and her Government represent the old guard. Quebec has a society has changed a great deal in the last 40 years and it is a far more diverse society composed of people from all over the world who came to join Quebec Society.  Lumberjacks now in the far North of Quebec are likely to be Africans from Cameroon or Senegal who speak French with the distinctive Quebec French Accent.  They are perfectly integrated into Quebec Society. As for the Maghreb Arabs they too are integrated same goes for many other groups including the Chinese. It is not the Quebec of old where the English and the French were at each others throats over language and economic issues.

There will always be amongst immigrants and new comers people who will not integrate and will be unhappy. It was revealed recently that immigrants from France do not do as well as Haitians or other ethnic groups. That should give pause to reflect on the reasons why one person integrates and another does not.

A threat to French language and culture, I do not think so. My family belongs to the pure laine, the old stock and when I go to Montreal my native City, I see it as my home, I may not like some of the urban developments around me but that is structural, it's not about people. I look at people like Maria Mourani a Member of Parliament in Ottawa, born in Côte d'Ivoire from a Christian Lebanese family who migrated to Canada and sat until yesterday as a Bloc Member, the party that represents the separatists in the Federal House of Commons. She was kicked out of the Party because she declared in a televised interview that she was against this idea of a Charter of Quebec Values, that this was tantamount to Ethnic Nationalism, I agree with her that is exactly what it is. It is also very insulting to all those people who have come to Quebec to build a new life who may be of a different religion than mine or a different culture. They are not a threat they simply have a different culture.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a Montreal at the time of the Universal Exhibition of 1967 and then in the Montreal of the Olympic Games of 1976. That Montreal does not exist anymore, it was very much a white city divided by an invisible East-West boundary between the English and the French. There were very few visible minorities then, except for the Chinese and a few Haitian mostly well educated professional people fleeing the Duvalier Regime. We lived in Snowdon, Hampstead and Côte Saint-Luc, a very Jewish area of the City. So from an early age I got to know all about the Jewish Holidays and traditions. Good business people who knew all about customer service. Our neighbourhood was a mix of English and French speaking people, this is were I learned English on the streets playing with the other kids. There were also Orthodox Jews with there great big fur hats, as a kid  I always wondered if they were not a bit hot on a muggy summer day. We knew quite a few Rabbis and prominent families like the Bronfman of Seagram fame. It was all part of our world, quite ordinary.

Later in school I had teachers who were from Morocco, they had fled unrest in their country, I had friends from Egypt whose family fled the Nasser Regime. We also had family friends who were Syrian and Lebanese.  An uncle of mine who was a priest had worked in Haiti in the 1950's so we knew Haitians. I never saw any of these people as a threat to Quebec or French Culture. They were just people, our neighbours and friends.

Then during my working career I live for 8 years in the Middle-East and North Africa, so I was living among the Muslims, I found them to be kind and cultured, courteous in an old world sense. I can honestly say that I never met a fundamentalist or un-pleasant Muslim. Not that they do not exist but through experience I found that most people are reasonable and easy to get along with.

The problems in Quebec are economic they are not based on identity, culture, language or ethnicity.
It is sad that the current government is so intent on this populist move, stirring up the boogyman of
cultural values. I can say that the Muslim, the Jew, the Sikh wants the same thing I want, I know that and I know it from certainty acquired through a life of experiences.

Unfortunately too many politicians like Madame Marois are cynical and really do not care as long as this gives them another electoral victory, because politics is all about winning otherwise what is the point.  What I fear now is the debates and opinions in the media and I know that this sort of debate will bring out all the extremists from both the Federal and Provincial camps. Many hateful things will be said and this is what Madame Marois is hoping for, she can build her case on such things. Hopefully her minority government can be brought down by a vote before things get too out of hand.

       Assemblée Nationale, Quebec City


  1. Great post, Laurent, and I think you're right -- this is a cynical political move designed to help the PQ win the next election. But the harm it can do to people's lives and Quebec itself is ill-conceived. Ontario is already soliciting Quebec minority doctors and healthcare workers to move to Toronto. And they will, if this progresses.

  2. I learned more about this topic reading this entry than I got from the CBC this week. Thank you !

    As you know I am fascinated with language. I've read a theory to why English predominates so despite its complexity : it is a constantly evolving language which takes in new words from others, invents more, and discards outdated words.
    French strikes me as the opposite - those who speak it guard against 'non-French" words being assimilated. This strikes me as not a good idea for vitality and survival. And it sounds elitist.

    1. Spoken French is a precise language and it does evolve and has. But this Charter business is all politics and little to do with language. It is Populist Politics of the worst kind.

  3. Thanks for the insight. Admittedly an outsider's perspective but it is hard to see this as anything other than xenophobia. We'll get the "us" to rally around by defining a "them". Frightening in many ways

    1. I wish we could get out of this type of debate and just move on. But it does not happen, same nonsense all the time.