Contrary to what the mainstream English press will have you believe, Québec is not the most racist place in Canada. Racism is sewn into the fabric of Canadian society Québec is just one piece of that fabric.
English politicians have been quick to score political points by capitalizing on easy and age-old divisions: when they condemn Québec, the Parti Québecois or Pauline Marois for being racist they’re saying: "Look at them!" Or, in other words, "Don’t look at us!"
Indeed, the Parti Québecois' Charte de la laïcité is a gift to Canadian politicians. The Ontario government has jumped at this opportunity and condemned the charter before it was even released.
This condemnation is pretty vacant when you consider that just last Friday, the Ontario government challenged its own responsibility to give OHIP coverage to two migrant workers who were injured on the job. Ontario believes that foreign workers (who are mostly racialized), once injured and unable to work, should be kicked off the provincial health plan.
The Ontario government also hasn't declared its support for Ian Campeau's Human Rights challenge to change the racist name of the Nepean amateur football team from The Redskins to something that isn't racist. Nor have they condemned the National amateur football association for refusing to comment, or for resisting the change in the past.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi jumped into the ring, too. He received wide media coverage last week for having opposed Marois' planned legislation. Though, rather than acknowledging how far his own community has to go in combating racism, he focused only on Québec. Calgary is one of the most active cities in Canada for white supremacist organizing, one of the few places where white nationalists still try to march annually on Hitler's birthday.
There are blind spots in English Canada to institutionalized racism and it's not good enough for politicians to only condemn the most outward expressions of white supremacy. The quick political points scored will only amplify anti-Québec sentiment and Québecers who see this will be rightfully outraged.
Canada was built on white supremacy and white nationalism. The supremacy of the Catholic and Protestant churches, tied into the genocide upon which the country was built, is woven into every single Canadian structure. But Québec's origins, as they relate to its society today, are different from the rest of Canada.
Québec's history of conquest by England, the push to control all aspects of Québec society by the Catholic Church and the repressive nature of that control has no parallel experience in the rest of Canada. The forced subjugation of French-speaking Québecers at the hands of English capitalists created an unequal society where Québecers were less educated, more poor and more marginalized than most of the English minority in this province.
Québecers' institutional relationship with religion is also different than in any other region of Canada. They spectacularly and swiftly rejected the influence of the church over their lives through the quiet revolution. But the break wasn't entirely clean and the role once played by the Catholic Church still influences how many Québecers understand religion and its relationship with the state.
The PQ's charter advances a secularism that is born from this experience. It's a kind of secularism, a White, post-Catholic secularism, where public schools still have crosses attached to them and where a crucifix is an image of culture, not of religion. It's paradoxical, but it's deeply Québécois.
This political context means that any attempt at creating a secularism charter made by a governing political party is going to be completely bungled, racist and offensive.
While many people had hoped that the charter would have at least stopped public grants to private religious schools, the charter is silent on this. It also exempts, of all people, the politicians themselves from being forced to hide their religious symbols if elected. The PQ: protecting those in power, while oppressing and marginalizing workers.
I have progressive friends who argue with me that public institutions should have no outward expression of religion. This blanket assertion gets messy when you consider how deep Catholicism still runs throughout, and how burning every last vestige of the Catholic Church from Québec is impossible. This is especially true considering the widespread sale of churches in the province: sometimes it makes more sense for a city to buy a church and turn it into a library than simply burn it down. The stained glass is probably old and beautiful and so it’s restored. It also probably has a depiction of Jesus's beard being plucked off, or Jesus in agony upon the cross.
Just like the quick political points that Wynne and Nenshi hoped to score, this Charter is more about polls than it is about proselytization. If it were about freedom from the annoying folks who try to convince me that Scientology is the way to find salvation, the PQ would just ban proselytism from public spaces. But surely, no one ever converted to Islam solely because they learned Grade 6 math from a woman wearing hijab.
This debate has little to do with religious freedom. The Parti Québécois knows that this rhetoric is popular among enough people that it might deliver them a provincial majority. And besides, demonizing a turban is way easier than balancing the province’s desire to exploit its natural resources and satisfy foreign industry with peoples' outrage in the aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, for example.
Secularism, when wielded as a blunt object, will marginalize people who are already marginalized. For religious observers, wearing religious symbols is not a choice and they will either be systematically excluded from the public sector, or oppressed into turning away from some elements of how they express their religion.
The legislation is rooted in white supremacy, where the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the white dominant are fine, but the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the mostly racialized other are offensive. In fact, according to Bernard Drainville, the MNA who presented the charter, they're so offensive that they need to be stopped in particular to protect children in schools.
But the analysis of this has to be thoughtful and careful. It's not enough to just call Québec racist as if every other province doesn't struggle with its own racist structures. Canadian critics, especially mainstream journalists, need to avoid applying their own province's history and current context to analyses of Québec.
Image is a French political cartoon, commenting on the same debate in France.
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