Opening itself to public ridicule yet again, the Quebec government is testing the limits of our tolerance for immigrants and the rightly-maligned policy of multiculturalism.
This is not, however, the guffaws caused by the language police taking exception with the names of Italian foods. Instead, the secularism charter rolled out in greater detail this week – a week that included ceremonies marking the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – expresses an unease with Muslims, concerns that aren’t limited to Quebec, but where identity, language and culture are much more pressing issues. The charter ham-handedly promoted by Premier Pauline Marois is a natural extension of the recent flap over wearing a headdress while playing soccer and the decision to send home a woman writing an exam for failing to remove her face covering.
This is also the province that has launched reviews of accommodation measures, signaling that people there want some clear lines drawn about just how much license will be given to newcomers. Nowhere is the issue of immigration and accommodation more volatile than with Muslims and Islam.
It’s that group of immigrants that has prompted the government to consider banning overtly religious symbols from the ranks of the public sector. Not able to simply banish burkas and niqabs, the Parti Quebecois must also include turbans, kippas and even crosses as a way of seeming to apply the rules to everyone.
Clearly, the proposed charter has struck a nerve in there, where polls show a large majority of Quebeckers support the restrictions. That list includes public sector unions.
The charter has rightly been derided by critics inside the province and, much more vocally, in the rest of Canada. Such overt intolerance makes us uncomfortable, despite our unease with the number and nature of immigrants. Outside of Quebec, we’ve been slow to tackle a growing problem. Political correctness has stifled debate.
Simply put, Quebec is not alone in its distrust of Islam – the movement, not necessarily the religion, though the public often makes no such distinction. There’s been little talk of defending Canadian culture, unlike what’s going on in Quebec.
It’s no coincidence that Quebec is the flashpoint for the issue. French Quebeckers have long felt under siege as a minority in Canada and in a wider North American context. Since the sovereignty movement picked up steam in the 1970s, successive governments have attempted to strengthen the French language and culture by imposing restrictions on others, notably the English population to begin with. With immigrants more likely to favour English and federalism, PQ governments in particular have tried to counter those tendencies.
More aware of their culture, and more likely to feel it threatened, Quebeckers are prone to take exception to the creeping multiculturalism and growing immigration-related problems seen elsewhere in the country. The awkward, heavy-handed approach is easy to mock, but there’s a part of what’s happening that resonates outside the province.
Of course, it’s more than a coincidence that targeting “them” is seen as a way to boost the fortunes of a minority government. The charter has garnered kudos from much of the electorate, particularly outside of Montreal. The potential benefits at election time have not been lost on the PQ.
Even if the charter is passed, it’s sure to generate some legal wrangling and open up a constitutional can of worms. And it will keep in the limelight an issue that makes many Canadians squirm due to mixed emotions.