When a spade is truly a spade: The PQ's xenophobia in a throwaway election for progressive federalists

Women against intolerance during the 'reasonable accomodation' debate in Quebec.

Trevor Hanna's article 'Secularism, Xenophobia, and Quebec Politics' challenges the tendency of Québec's Anglophone and other minority linguistic communities to throw ad hominem attacks at the Parti Québécois (PQ) every time that it legislates in favor of Francophone interests on the issues of language and culture.

In a sense, part of this critique is warranted. I cannot count the number of times that, Godwin's Law aside, I've heard fellow Anglophones compare the PQ to the Nazis, argue that Bill 101 is analogous to the Holocaust or to Apartheid, or make other insensible and insensitive comparisons and analogies.

Yet Mr. Hanna is flat out wrong, and without nuance, when it comes to engaging in apologia for the PQ's current electoral xenophobia. The campaign that has so far been run by Ms. Marois' team is replete with xenophobic attempts to whip the PQ's base into a sovereigntist electoral frenzy. 

The distinction that Mr. Hanna appears to be making in his piece is the one that exists between overt and covert xenophobia, or between direct and indirect discrimination. It is correct that the PQ's leaders have not overtly called for the deportation of all of Quebec's immigrants, told the English to go back home or sought to directly ban non-Québécois from entering the provincial public service.

No, the PQ's xenophobia is electoral, underhanded and far more nefarious in its consequences for our democracy. Within the study of government, it is a subject of consensus that voters do not set the agendas of electoral campaigns. Rather, it is the mainstream news media and the major political parties that do so.

In Quebec's case, the PQ has sought to pounce on some of the cosmopolitan changes occurring in our society, notably immigration and increasing diversity, so as to trigger the xenophobic urges of its "pur et dur" base. With this, Mr. Hanna is correct to note that we cannot demonstrate that the PQ is guilty of irrational hatred or distaste for foreigners. We can, however, with a high degree of confidence, hypothesize that a significant part of its electoral strategy is to trigger these sentiments within its base.  

What the PQ is doing in this election is what Edward Saïd and many other progressive intellectuals refer to as "othering." Rather than promoting the inclusive Canadian project of multiculturalism, all the while protecting our province's French majority in scrupulous and sensible ways, the PQ has sought to create artificial and often fictitious boundaries between those of us who inhabit the province.

With the language card having lost political salience, as the Québécois mass has come to realize that learning English is a key to success in a globalized world, the PQ is dividing and attempting to conquer on the basis of new cleavages: ethnicity and religion. Its promises to enact a secularism charter and to stiffen extant language legislation represent nothing more than attempts to mobilize the party's xenophobic base, which after years of atrophy under Liberal rule, is ready and willing to break any democratic principle so as to achieve independence. 

The corollary of this is most certainly not that every individual who votes for the PQ is doing so for xenophobic reasons. Another subject of consensus in political science is that different people vote for the same party for vastly different reasons.

That said, Mr. Hanna's apology for the PQ is playing a dangerous game of semantics. He is correct in noting that the PQ has not directly engaged in any overt xenophobic acts; he is incorrect in arguing that this protects the PQ from accusations of xenophobia. Only in criminal courtrooms must accusations be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. That bar, which Mr. Hanna thus seeks to have us apply to the PQ, is anathema to the informed public discussion of politics, and to the critique and denunciation of electoral promises that are dangerous to minority rights.

I have experienced this facet of the PQ firsthand in recent weeks. While walking my dog through my home riding of Rosemont on Montréal’s East Side, I ran into Jean-Francois Lisée, one of the PQ's star candidates, a Québécois public intellectual of great rigour, and the favourite to win the district's seat. Asking if he could count on my vote September 4th, I told Mr. Lisée that I would never support a party with a platform predicated on a form of ethnic nationalism regardless of its economic progressiveness. Mr. Lisée rapidly retorted to this by qualifying his party's nationalism as being civic in nature. When pressed on this, Mr. Lisée cited the examples of Maka Kotto and Djemila Benhabib, both members of visible minority groups who have identified the PQ's platform as being most congruent with their identities and individuals subjectivities. Sadly, despite the intellectual rigour that he displays in other circles, Mr. Lisée’s tokenism is offensive and fallacious. Statements like the one which he made about Mr. Kotto and Mrs. Benhabib are but further evidence of the deeply-rooted xenophobia that pervades the PQ. One cannot simply point at minority members of one's party, and state that the latter is inclusive. If a party is running on an exclusionary political framework, which seeks to privilege some languages, ethnicities and religions above all others, it cannot make the claim that its nationalism is civic or that its platform is not xenophobic. 

Mr. Lisée is relevant here because he is also the talking head that the PQ sent in front of the media to respond to criticisms that the Party's proposed secularism charter violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Rather than backpedaling, and promising to create a more inclusive Québecois society, Mr. Lisée proceeded to promise that a PQ majority government would attach the Nonwithstanding Clause, Section 33 of the aforementioned Charter, to any PQ bill that would fail to meet Constitutional scrutiny. Doing this would severely impair the Canadian Supreme Court's ability to exercise judicial review over any provincial legislation violating fundamental freedoms that fall under Section Two of the Charter.

Given that this section of our Constitution enumerates our fundamental freedoms: of expression; of religion; of thought; of belief; of peaceful assembly; and of association, the PQ is essentially promising to engage in xenophobic discrimination against its citizens all the while impairing the principal check that exists against tyranny in any democracy. While former Quebec premier René Lévesque regularly invoked the Nonwithstanding Clause when promulgating legislation during his tenure as premier,  the vast majority of the legislation enacted during his tenure did not directly abridge fundamental democratic freedoms and values in the manner that the contemporary PQ promises to.  Yes, the political party that is currently leading in Quebec opinion polls for the upcoming election is not only promising to discriminate on the basis of language, ethnicity, and religion; it is also bragging that it will remove the power of judicial review from the process of legislating public policy. 

Problematically, the endgame of this election is far from clear for those of us who identify as progressive federalists. While most of us support the students in their quest for a tuition freeze, abhor Mr. Charest's "Plan Nord" for its wanton and senseless destruction of the pristine North that we share with our First Nations, and are appalled by the corruption allegations that plague the Liberal government, we also tend to believe in Canada's multicultural project.

Problematically, we will not be able to vote for a party that embodies our interests until the NDP returns to the Quebec electoral realm in 2016. We are proverbial political orphans in the midst of great turmoil. The above in mind, those of us who are accusing the PQ of xenophobia, and standing by this accusation, are not doing so to score political points or to throw further fuel on the proverbial fire of Quebec language policy. Rather, we are pointing out the danger of a political party that promises to legislate progressive and social democratic economic policies all the while challenging some of the basic and foundational protections afforded to all Canadian citizens by the country's Constitution. We are speaking out against a party that has dedicated a significant portion of its electoral platform towards excluding minority group members from the society that they should freely live in.

There is only one other large and mainstream entity in North American politics that is so adamantly seeking to destroy diversity. Its name is the American Tea Party. While the PQ and the Tea Party sharply diverge on a wide variety of economic and social issues, the two share a xenophobic passion for destroying ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, trampling on the fundamental freedoms of those who disagree with them, and for "othering" those who were not born into the nation that they seek to construct and preserve.

The terrifying part of this story is that the PQ operates in our beautiful progressive country, rather than in our polarized neighbour to the South. With this, it is imperative that progressive Québécois who believe in multiculturalism and in the Canadian project think twice before seeking to strategically oust a federalist party during this electoral cycle. The dangers of the PQ's xenophobia and anti-democratic policies aside, the future of Canadian multiculturalism, and the Canadian project itself may depend on it. 

Kevin J.S. Duska Jr. is a native Montrealer who only recently returned from five years of academic exile in the American Midwest. Having earned a Joint Honours Bachelors degree in Political Science and Sociology from McGill University, Kevin then obtained an MA in Political Science (International Relations and Comparative Politics) from the Ohio State University. He is currently in the midst of completing his doctoral dissertation entitled "Narratives of Hegemony: Contradiction and Discontent at America’s Twilight” from Montreal. 

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