Quebec's national assembly. Photo: Daniel Szpiro/Flickr

Today, June 24, is la Fête nationale in Quebec, what they used to call St-Jean-Baptiste Day, a holiday that has greatly evolved over the years.

Originally, la Fête promoted Quebec’s notional Roman Catholic identity. If the holiday expressed any degree of nationalism, it was of an insular and defensive sort.

Then, starting in the 1960s, the day became at once more secular and more overtly political and nationalistic. Celebrations, which almost always included many of Quebec’s leading musical stars, often spoke openly to the aspiration for an independent Quebec state.

Since the 1960s the holiday has become more and more inclusive. Its definition of Québécois has expanded to include not only Québécois de vieille souche (old stock Quebecers), but everyone who is part of Quebec’s diverse society, regardless of religion or ethnic origin.

This year, even Franco-Ontarians are included. My good friend Ferline Regis, a Franco-Ontarian originally from Haiti, will be among a group of Ontario artists performing on a mobile stage, Monday evening, at the opening of the Fête nationale parade along Saint-Denis Street in Montreal.

Long history to Legault’s Law 21

This year, la Fête also takes place against the backdrop of Quebec’s recently passed Law 21.

That law deems that professionals who wear visible religious garb, such as the hijab or turban, may not work at public service jobs which have what the Quebec government calls “coercive” roles. Those jobs include not only judges, prison guards and police officers, but also elementary and high school teachers, principals and vice-principals.

The law is the brainchild of the still-young, right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government. But this piece of legislation has a long history.  

Twelve years ago, then Liberal premier Jean Charest named two eminent Quebec academics, historian Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, to head a commission to study how far Quebec should go to accommodate ethnic and religious minorities.

Bouchard-Taylor’s final report devoted a good deal of space to encouraging Quebecers to be open-minded and accepting of all elements of Quebec society — especially the relatively new crop of non-European immigrants, many of them French-speaking Muslims from North and sub-Saharan Africa. It was, to a considerable extent, publicly expressed concern — not all of it genteel or polite — over this growing and visible Muslim community that led Charest to create the commission.

Bouchard and Taylor did suggest that it might be acceptable for the government to impose religious-symbol and dress restrictions on the limited group of public servants who are charged with enforcing the law, notably judges and police officers. But the commission did not include teachers in that category.

When Pauline Marois’ Parti Québecois (PQ) took power in 2012 it picked up the ball and went much further than Bouchard-Taylor. The PQ government introduced a Charter of Quebec (secular) Values that would have imposed sweeping restrictions on all Quebec public servants, regardless of their roles, from teachers and nurses to transport ministry clerks.

The aim of the charter, according to Marois’ lead minister on the file, former CBC French network journalist Bernard Drainville, was to assure the neutrality of the Quebec state. The Quebec national assembly never voted on the charter, however, because Marois called a snap election in 2014. She lost to Philippe Couillard’s Liberals.

François Legault’s small-c conservative CAQ government has now revived the issue.

Legault considers his government to be beholden to small town and rural voters, many of whom, apparently, continue to view exogenous elements in Quebec society as a threat. But the premier tries to portray Law 21 as a moderate and reasonable compromise. He points out that while his law goes well beyond the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations, it falls far short of the PQ’s more draconian charter.  

The CAQ premier argues, further, that his government’s measure will head off the growth in Quebec of the type of more extreme and openly xenophobic political groups we find in Europe these days.

Germany has the AfD (Alternative for Germany). France has Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Austria and the Netherlands have their Freedom Parties, and Greece has the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. We do not need any of that in Quebec, Legault says.

He might have a point. It might be worth the candle for the more reasonable right to steal the thunder of the extreme right.

Still, Legault’s government freely admits that, however moderate it may be, much of Law 21 is contrary to fundamental rights as guaranteed by both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms. That is why, as it passed this law, the government amended the Quebec charter (which is a legislative, not constitutional document) and invoked the Canadian charter’s notwithstanding clause.  

And rather than placate the bigots among us, there are those who fear that the CAQ’s restrictive measures will bring to the surface some barely-stifled ugly and intolerant attitudes. They worry that Law 21 will serve to legitimize openly-expressed hostility to members of visible minority groups, especially Muslim women.

Charles Taylor is in that latter group.

In the years since the commission he co-chaired reported, Taylor has changed his view on government restrictions on religious clothing. He now opposes any and all such limitations. He sees such measures as a slippery slope, which could lead to more widespread acts of intolerance directed at vulnerable members of minority communities.

The CSN and Québec Solidaire are opposed

On the progressive side of the political ledger, some who, in the past, might have supported limited measures to restrict personal religious expression have also changed their tune.

Notable among those are the environmental and socialist Québec Solidaire party and the large Quebec trade union federation, the CSN (the Confédération des syndicats nationaux or Confederation of National Trade Unions).

In both cases it was the grassroots members who dictated the change. CSN president Jacques Létourneau attributes this about-face to the arrival of a new generation of leaders in his movement.

“Society has evolved,” he said, adding that union militants are not “in the same place” as they were a decade or even six years ago. The same is manifestly true of the members of Québec Solidaire.

And so, as Quebec celebrates its Fête national it would be unfair for the rest of Canada to believe that Quebecers, overall, are less tolerant and accepting of diversity than Canadians as a whole.

Although the CAQ’s discriminatory measures are now officially the law, the battle is not over.

There are court challenges. The use of the notwithstanding clause might not be legally and constitutionally watertight.

And many political and educational entities charged with enforcing the new law might offer significant resistance.

Quebec’s largest school board, the French language Montreal Board (la Commission scolaire de Montréal) has already voted — unanimously — to delay application of the law until it has time to consult its membership. Quebec’s English school boards had earlier announced, even before it passed, that they would not comply with Law 21.

A new generation of Quebecers has already changed the attitudes of a major union federation and of at least one political party. In time, there is a good chance that generation’s influence will continue to spread and grow.

And so, on peut toujours souhaiter une joyeuse Fête nationale à tous au Québec. (We can still wish a happy Fête national to everyone in Quebec.)

Editor’s note, June 25, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that doctors, nurses and social workers were subject to Law 21.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: Daniel Szpiro/Flickr

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...