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August 13, 2019

Premier Legault's Strange Opposition to Prejudice

Reuel S. Amdur

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Premier François Legault declares that "Quebeckers are open and tolerant and will continue to be." Therefore, in spite of the existence of "too many" racist acts, there is no need for a day devoted to acting against Islamophobia. Well, just how tolerant is Quebec?

On September 19, 2018, the Association for Canadian Studies issued a report, “Attitudes towards Jews and Muslims.”  The report relies on interviews conducted by Leger Marketing.  Their question: “Would you say that you have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of the following groups?”  Responses were classified by language rather than by province, but the size of the differences makes it reasonable to see French Canada as roughly equivalent to Quebec. 

In the survey, 73% if Canadians had a favourable attitude toward Jews, with 13% unfavourable and 14% having no opinion or refusing to answer.  When the responses are grouped by language, the positives were 77% for English and 62% for French.  Most telling is the difference for those with an unfavourable attitude, seven per cent English as against 27% for French—four times as high.  This large rate for Francophones (hence, for Quebec) has its roots in the historical prejudice and discrimination against “les maudits Juifs,” an attitude and practice of and by both Francophones and Anglophones.  Thus, McGill University had its numerus clausis for Jews.  At the time, there were no Muslims around against whom to discriminate.

When we come to Muslims in the survey, half of Canadians had a positive view of them, with 34% unfavourable.  The Francophones gave 43% favourable and 49% unfavourable.  No problem, Mr. Legault?

These prejudicial attitudes find their reflection in politics, with prejudice translated into discrimination behind the veils of “laïcitié” and “fitting in.”  Thus, Gatineau’s Nathalie Lemieux, recently booted out of her post as vice-mayor, complained that Muslims “don’t integrate.”  Hérouxville adopted its Code of Conduct in 2007—no stoning of women or burning them alive, no face covering, and no exemption for students from school prayer.  The code also took aim at Sikhs: no weapons in school even if they are symbolic (the Sikh kirpan), and at Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their opposition to blood transfusions.

The prejudice against Sikhs recalled the case in which the courts supported the right of a child to carry a small kirpan to school if it were wrapped in cloth.  Jehovah’s Witnesses have a history of persecution in Quebec, especially while Maurice Duplessis was premier. 

In order to ward off the danger that the Hérouxville code might be adopted by other towns, Premier Jean Charest appointed the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to look at the issue of reasonable accommodation.  The action did serve to avoid the spread of the Hérouxville code, but it left us with a definition of accommodation that is still discriminatory and will not likely survive any future court challenges.  After Alexandre Bissonnette shot up a mosque, Charles Taylor saw the link between “reasonable accommodation” and prejudice and discrimination.  He withdrew his support from the report that he had authored together with Gérard Bouchard.  The report recommended the forbidding of conspicuous religious symbols by persons of authority, such as police, judges, and prison guards, as well as certain officers of the National Assembly.  While the report would specifically allow teachers, health professionals, and public servants to wear religious symbols, the Parti Québécois Charter of Values and the Coalition Avenir Québec’s Bill 62 includes them and adds as well members of the public using public services.  In for a penny, in for a pound. The Liberals limped uncomfortably behind.

Some Canadian police forces, including the RCMP, have prescribed a standard hijab for officers.  Years ago, the RCMP hired a turban-wearing Sikh.  Coming soon to the Sûreté du Québec?  Don’t bet on it.

Let’s talk a bit about Quebec’s strange “laïcité.”  While “conspicuous” religious symbols, both on persons of authority and those using public services, are to be forbidden under Bill 62, “small” ones are okay.  Who wears large ones?  Some Muslims, some Jews and Sikhs and Christians.  Who wear small ones?  A larger number of Christians, particularly women.  It is clear who wins out in this shuffle.  Then we come to the cross in the National Assembly.  It is there for reasons of history, as the argument goes.  But it was put there by Premier Maurice Duplessis, whose Catholicism was not simply historical, as is illustrated by his vicious persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  And if we want to communicate history in the National Assembly, why not add a Cree sweat lodge? 

Alexandre Bissonnette’s assault on a mosque is an extreme example of Islamophobia.  We do not accept killing Muslims, but excluding them from our polity and complaining that they do not integrate and that they dress “funny” is within the bounds of what is acceptable.  All that is fine.  Killing them just goes too far.

Wake up, Premier Legault, Islamophobia in particular and prejudice more generally are alive and well in Quebec. You contribute to them by your policies of so-called “laïcité”.  Did you notice that the Ontario legislature voted unanimously to oppose your Bill 62?  Premier Rachel Notley of Alberta also spoke out against it.  Did you notice that no politicians outside Quebec were lining up to adopt similar measures?  Is this how we are to vaunt Quebec’s distinctiveness?  Premier Legault, you are part of the problem, not of the solution.

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