On independence and the niqab

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Quebec and Quebecers are the first to know how a majority can be oppressive and can interfere with minority rights. Photo: Alfred Weidinger

When I first immigrated to Quebec in the early ’90s, there was only one word that divided or rallied Quebecers: "independence," or if we want to be more politically correct, "sovereignty."

As a French-speaking immigrant coming from a francophone background, Quebec offered me the best of both worlds. At that time, I was applying for graduate business school, and I remember I kept including this line in my applications: “Quebec gives me the opportunity to have an excellent French education in a North American context.”

I totally believed my statement, and it worked out perfectly fine for me. I was accepted for a Master’s program in Finance at the d’École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Montréal (now HEC Montréal). While all of my professors spoke and lectured in French, most of our readings were done in English. I was one of the very few racialized students in the program, let alone a Muslim woman with a headscarf.

There was always a malaise the first time I would show up in class among other students with my headscarf, but that would somehow dissipate as soon as I spoke French. At that time, there was not a social debate about la laïcité, very little discussion about religious symbols, and nothing at all about the Charter of Values nor the niqab. Topics such as men and women’s equality was then understood in terms of representation and salary equity and not in term of length of dresses or colour of the hair.

Slowly, some isolated incidents started to make newspaper headlines. Schoolgirls started being kicked out of their private schools or from the soccer fields because of their religious headscarves. Obviously, Quebec was on the footstep of the raging debate about the “foulard Islamique” taking place in France.

Meanwhile, the 1995 referendum seeking the independence of Quebec from the rest of Canada was being prepared, with most political discussions focusing on issues like the use of the French language in Quebec, the equalization payments and the relationship between Quebec and the Canadian federal government. The Bloc Quebecois reached its culmination in the House of Commons becoming the official opposition in Ottawa.

In my opinion, it is the failure of the referendum of 1995 that officially marked the weakening of the sovereignty movement in Quebec, and thus opened the door wide to a new political experiment: identity politics. In fact, I don’t think it was a simple coincidence or a slip of tongue due to a tipsy mind that Jacques Parizeau infamously declared that night of October 30, 1995, after his loss that “Money and ethnic vote” were responsible of his political defeat

Quebec’s political leaders knew that politics is a matter of demographics and economic context, and that with the bitter loss of the 1995 Referendum, it was the end of a dream for a whole generation who lived through the Quiet Revolution, fought for Bill 101, and admired strong and charismatic leaders like René Lévesque. This didn’t mean that the younger generation was not attracted to the project of independence, but they never found their dreams materialized in a new class of sovereignty politicians.

Beyond the political rhetoric of “we need our own country and our culture and our nation,” none of these politicians was able to provide solid economical answers that would reassure the population. The sovereignty leaders were stuck with an old message, and couldn’t offer an alternative to the neoliberalism policies that was sweeping the world, with Quebec being no exception. The Desjardins movement, the Banque Nationale, Hydro-Quebec, Bombardier, SNC Lavallin, these were names that once used to be the stamp of distinction of the Quebec economy, and they were expected to be lifting the Quebec economy in case of independence. But even they became active participants of the globalized neoliberal economic model, and not solely working for the wealth of Quebecers.

Principles like solidarity, cooperation and integrity that underpinned these entities at their creation were replaced by profit, greed and corruption, like many other corporations around the world.

In the absence of real alternatives to these complex socio-economical issues, identity politics came as a magical recipe to this class of politicians in total disarray. They started recycling classic notions of “separation between the church and state” that proved to be relevant in the ’60s and ’70s, where the education system and political system was under the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy, and applying it to today’s political context, but this time targeting communities: Muslim women in particular and immigrants in general.

One of these politicians was Mario Dumont, who in 1994 created a new political party, l’Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), to compete with the political parties of the establishment: le Parti Québecois (PQ) and le Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ).  Later the ADQ merged with the Coaltion Avenir Québec (CAQ), headed by Francois Legault. Mario Dumont dreamed of — and was seen by many observers of the time — as possibly becoming a premier of Quebec.

These new political formations dropped the independence project from their agenda and replaced it by a more “fluid” and ambiguous one. However, they found in identity politics their polarizing issue or wedge issues: Muslim women, laicïté, and immigration became some of the new words that divided Quebecers in polls.

Since 2000, the reasonable accommodation debate has taken over the public debate. That political strategy proved to be very successful, at least for some and the ADQ under the leadership of Mario Dumont won 31 per cent of the popular vote in the election of 2007. He became leader of the official opposition, getting a bit closer to his child dream. But things quickly changed and the party lost in 2008, and consequently Dumont resigned and started a career as a TV reporter

Premier Phillipe Couillard and his political team tried to copycat the identity politics cards of Mario Dumont and Pauline Marois. Couillard’s nervousness about the political gains recently made by his political adversaries pushed him in that dangerous territory.  Last summer, he publicly criticized Muslims for not denouncing terrorism enough. Two weeks ago, his justice minister presented Bill 62, supposedly about “religious neutrality” but implicitly meant to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab when giving or receiving public services

In today’s politics, it is very tempting to govern through polls. However, it isn’t because that a majority of people in Quebec and in the rest of Canada are scared of the niqab and what it represents that it would automatically imply a legislation to ban it. Quebec and Quebecers are the first to know how a majority can be oppressive and can interfere with minority rights. This should remain the case even when the minority is from a different religion, has different views, and even if it only impacts fewer than 50 people

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com.

Photo: Alfred Weidinger

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