White square, dark times

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Photo: White Square Campaign

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The White Square Campaign against the Quebec Charter of Values is so new that if you Google "carré blanc québec" you get an article by transgender activist Michelle Blanc saying that the charter doesn't go nearly far enough. Quebec is never without a sense of humour.

Since it was officially proposed in September, 2013, Bill 60, the Quebec Charter of Values, has become yet another issue that manages to divide this province as much as define it. While its declaration of a secular state may seem a welcome antidote to the rampant fundamentalism south of the border, the Charter proceeds to itemize in detail just how that secularism is to be expressed. You can read it in English here or you can play this game of musical chairs: if you’re Catholic you get to sit down; if you’re not, keep dancing.

Bernard Drainville, the Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, has been presiding over public consultation hearings on Bill 60 since mid-January. While various groups and institutions have articulated their opposition, the genius of the hearings -- if not their real purpose -- has been to legitimize a racist level of discourse where the blatant targeting of immigrants goes unchecked.

Like the Hérouxville hysteria of only a few years ago, presenters have been diligently narrating the ways in which immigrants, especially Muslims, threaten their way of life.

"We had to take off our shoes when we entered the mosque," said one woman about her trip to Morocco. "Can you believe it?!"

Another presenter said that she lied to a nurse about her alcohol consumption because the nurse's hijab was exerting subtle moral pressure.  A man declared that he would never submit to a prostate exam by a female doctor in a chador -- should one ever materialize. The Charlevoix Historical Society bemoaned the fact that Montreal is now more comfortable for immigrants than it is for the Quebecois. Which is true if you are of the mindset that "immigrant" and "Quebecois" are diametrically opposed.

According to Mary Anne Poutanen, one of the founders of the White Square Campaign, it is no surprise that the hearings are turning into forums for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. "Anyone can present as long as they submitted a mémoire. There is no censuring, no limit to what they can say."  

The only censuring undertaken by the hearings committee was to ban the word "racist," which Drainville did after a presenter called some of the media coverage racist. He was forced to withdraw the word.

The research coordinator of the Montreal History Group at McGill University says that their campaign borrows a now familiar trope in the province: pinning a square of felt to clothing. With a twist: "These you can decorate. You can draw a star of David or a crescent on it if you want."

The Quebec historian is not impressed with the Drainville-Marois hearings. "I’ve seen this kind of nativism before, especially when economic concerns are at play. Jobs are not plentiful and immigrants are easy targets. This bill and these hearings are taking place on the backs of the most vulnerable."

And while the Drainville hearings echo the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation of 2007, there is a significant difference. "There is a political agenda this time around. They know what they want and they are out to get it." In this case "it" is to pass the Bill, go on to win a majority at the next election, and then set the stage for a sovereignty referendum. "The bill and these hearings are a wedge issue," Poutanen asserts.

"It’s a very Quebec response," she says, "very top down. Since the Quiet Revolution, Quebec has developed legislation to deal with social issues. This bill is reminiscent of this tendency."

"But the real question," she adds, "should be how can we help people, especially women, better integrate on an economic and social level. How can we ensure they are better educated and supported." Instead, she worries that this bill and the fear it is generating "will force women back into the household and out of the public sphere."

Although the movement is relying only on word of mouth and its Facebook page to spread their message, it is growing. "I recently heard that a man brought 400 white squares to give away at a demonstration. And just this week someone came to my door and was thrilled to see that I was wearing a white square. He had no idea that I was one of the originators. He just recognized it and was very supportive."

Opponents to the Charter of Values say it’s all moot anyways, that it will never stand up to a legislative or constitutional challenge. Still, for Poutanen, that doesn’t diminish the harm it has already created. “It’s very unsettling,” says Poutanen.

Instructions for White Square Campaign supporters: cut out a 2 cm x 2 cm square from white cloth of any kind. Pin to chest. Exhale.

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By day Leila Marshy is Editor of The Rover; by night she is Madame PainPain.

Photo: White Square Campaign

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