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Quebec, Islamophobia and austerity

Chantal Sundaram

June 22, 2015

The death of former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau renewed memories of his infamous comments on the night of the 1995 referendum loss about "money and the ethnic vote."

The day after Parizeau’s funeral, on June 10, Montreal hosted the “Living together” summit on security, terrorism, racism and repression attended by mayors of 30 cities around the world. The summit was part of the Quebec’s Liberal government’s action plan on “de-radicalization,” which was also revealed June 10: it included $2 million earmarked for Montreal’s new “anti-radicalization centre,” and two new bills, one on hate speech, and one on the religious neutrality of the state, Bill 62, an “Act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies."

The background to this is the debate over the PQ’s failed “Charter of Values,” which proposed to ban the wearing of religious insignia, notably the hijab, in many public sector workplaces. Although Bill 62 does not propose banning the hijab, it would ban face-coverings, notably the niqab, for public servants and citizens using government services. Officials could refuse an accommodation request for security or identification reasons.

But the argument that systemic fear of Islam or of other racialized communities can be pinned more on Quebec than on anyone else has taken an increasing beating with the Harper government’s introduction of Bill C-51, that viciously targets civil liberties, and the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” not to mention the federal Tories’ own hysteria about the wearing of the niqab while voting or taking the Canadian citizenship oath. In Harper’s own words on the niqab in question period: "Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that is… rooted in a culture that is anti-women?"

And in fact, the Harper Tories lost no time in throwing their support behind Bill 62. Multiculturalism Minister, Tim Uppal told the media: "We broadly support Quebec's legislation regarding the uncovering of faces for giving and receiving public services." Most importantly, he announced that the Tories will table a last-minute bill just before the session ends for the summer that will be similar to Quebec's with respect to face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

The renewed stoking of Islamophobia and racism in Quebec is in lock-step with initiatives throughout the West to boost support for military intervention against ISIS and anti-terror initiatives at home that profile and target the Muslim community. It is by no means a Quebec creation, whether by those who continue to support Quebec’s sovereignty or by federalists within Quebec. And so, unfortunately, it should not come as a surprise that the new Bill on “religious neutrality” was introduced as part of Quebec’s “de-radicalization” plan. 

There is one notable difference, however: unlike in English Canada, the debate in Quebec has not focused on “barbarism” but rather very specifically on “secularism.” There is a historical reason for this.

From Quiet Revolution to Austerity

The debate over “secularism” in Quebec dates back to the struggle against the predominance of the Catholic Church over all aspects of life as a means of social control to redirect desires for national self-determination and defense of the Quebecois language and cultural identity into a state of religious submission. Since the revolt against both the Quebec Church and the English Canadian state which became known as the Quiet Revolution, there have been various attempts to redefine Quebec nationalism and identity, but the ideal of secularism has remained important. However, in an era that has targeted Muslims under the guise of “secularism,” the historically progressive nature of this ideal has been fundamentally turned on its head.

Years before the international rise of Islamophobia to justify war, Parizeau’s comment in 1995 had opened the door to an ethnically-based notion of Quebec identity that was in keeping with the Parti Quebecois’ increasing embrace of neoliberalism and austerity. This distortion of the early hopes and dreams that many progressive Quebecois had invested in the PQ culminated in the racist and Islamophobic Charter of Values and the election of arch-capitalist and union-buster Pierre-Karl Pelladeau as PQ leader.

Recent debate over secularism in Quebec has not escaped the hypocrisy and double-standard that infects the West. While debate rages over the hijab and niqab, a crucifix hands in the Quebec National Assembly; and in the Saguenay last April, a Quebec citizen had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get a ruling against prayer at city council meetings, in defiance of a mayor who argued that reciting prayer at city council respects Quebec's Catholic heritage.

Charter of Values

Ironically, soon after the PQ’s Charter proposal was released in 2013, Parizeau attacked it in a column in the Journal de Montréal, where he argued that the separation of church and state in Quebec has long since been established, thanks to the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, and accused the PQ of reacting to a growing fear of Islam. The column prompted federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to remark "I think when Mr. Parizeau becomes a voice of moderation in the debate, the sovereigntists have a real problem."

The Charter was part of what led to the PQ’s downfall after one term in office. Then in January 2015 they introduced a new version of the "Values Charter," touted as more flexible and consensual, but like the first one its purpose was to drum up support for a PQ that is losing touch with its base as a result of its austerity agenda.

The whole question of "secularism" as a feature of Quebec identity continues to be an attempt to distract from resistance to austerity. And it is not having the desired affect now any more than it did before. Nevertheless, it is feeding a heightened level of Islamophobia that, while not displacing anger over austerity, is finding a dangerous coexistence with it.

In February the media reported a rise in support for the new Charter compared to the failure of the last one: this was based on a poll taken in the wake of the Charlie-Hebdo attacks in Paris. And there were a number of disturbing events in Quebec around this time and since: a zoning change to keep out a mosque in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the refusal in Shawinigan to permit a mosque in an industrial park, and an injunction to evict a mosque from an industrial zone in Terrebonne.

Also in February, public intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor made disturbing statements before a commission that was considering a new Quebec immigration Policy. They argued for the need to reassure the population about religious fundamentalism: this was a turn-around from their own very measured report produced during the  Bouchard-Taylor Commission of 2007, when they were charged with shaping public debate about reasonable accommodation for religious observance and came up with recommendations for accommodating observance in the public sphere.

In the wake of the hysteria about Charlie-Hebdo and Isis, these same people called on the Couillard government to act quickly on the anti-terror front, advocating for two new laws: one on state secularism, and one on prevention of terrorism.  Although Taylor and Bouchard seemed to be arguing that two separate laws would reflect that these are two separate debates, their statements betrayed how much these issues have become entangled.

There is much greater sentiment across Quebec to oppose austerity than there is to focus on either a secular charter project or on any kind of anti-radicalization or anti-terror initiatives. But this has not stopped Quebec politicians from trying, and now it’s the Liberals’ turn.

“Living together”

It was Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, a former federal Liberal MP, who announced the creation of a “de-radicalization centre” in Montreal complete with a “radicalization hotline” in March 2015, and who hosted the “Living together” security summit in Montreal in June. In addition to pledging $2 million to the centre on the first day of the summit, Liberal Public Security Minister Lise Thériault summed up the Quebec government’s plan to fight “radicalization” as “action, prevention, detection and coexistence.”

The summit was intended to be a coordinated message from a range of Western municipalities from Paris to Berlin to LA. It follows a few months after a similar Summit by the White House, which coined the term and principles underlying “CVE”: “Countering Violent Extremism.

The progressive gloss on the event was to deal with issues of “ghettoization” and “social exclusion” in municipalities, and the ways these factors might contribute to “radicalization.” But given that the majority of events at this mayoral convergence were held behind closed doors, the notion of addressing any aspect of social exclusion was laughable. Couillard’s government, in addition to being staunchly federalist, is also staunchly partisan of austerity.

From “Money and the ethnic vote” to racism and austerity

The real threat is not fundamentalism, but austerity, in Quebec as in English Canada. In Quebec, so far, these debates don’t seem to be slowing down or decisively dividing the movement that exploded during the Quebec Spring of 2012 and that continues to be visible today.

The best recent indications have been the attempt to revive the student strike movement this spring (which stalled but showed the ability to restart when necessary) and the coordinated local protests against austerity across all regions of Quebec on May 1.

Another striking example was the decision by Montreal police, currently engaged in an ongoing work-to-rule protest over attacks on their pension, to wear camouflage pants to Parizeau’s funeral on June 9. The brewing show-down between public service unions and the Couillard government this fall will be the next test.

Anger can always be turned towards scapegoating false and easy targets, and Quebec is no exception.

But the people of Quebec are more than capable of deciding their future not based on money or ethnicity, but by refusing to let either one determine the future: a Quebecois identity based not on social or ethnic exclusion but on resistance to austerity and the possibility of a Quebec, and a world, beyond capitalism.

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