The "We" Vote in Quebec

Les Patriots 

Today is la Journée nationale des patriotes in Québec.   (Prior to 2003 it was Dollard des Ormeaux Day in celebration of the garrison commander who died fighting the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee]  at the Battle of Long Sault in 1660. Times change.)  In the ROC (the Rest of Canada) today is Victoria Day (in honour of Queen Victoria).


In popular lore, les patriots are remembered as French peasants battling their English overloads.  This version of history is at least partially true; however, some leaders of the rebellion in Lower Canada (today Quebec) were English (notably Wolfred Nelson and his brother, Dr. Robert Nelson), some members of the upper class--opposing les patriots-- were French Canadian seigneurs, and, at the same time (1839), a similar rebellion of English-speaking farmers was taking place against the ruling-elite Family Compact in Upper Canada for the same reasons--demanding representational government.

In Quebec, history is often retold as a battle between English and French

In this age of polarizing algorithms, viral conspiracy theories, fake news and internet trolls, it might seem like small potatoes that Canadian history tends to get rewritten from a linguistic perspective (not to mention the obvious, that it is written in two languages).  In Quebec, at a popular level and sometimes beyond, the stories of Canada tend to be told (or performed) as a conflict between an oppressive English elite and an oppressed, minoritized French-Quebec majority.

"Mon non est québécois"

During the 1995 referendum campaign on Quebec independence, a whisper campaign emerged suggesting that advocates for the "non" side ("no" to separation from Canada)  didn't have French-sounding names.  In response, the "non" campaign led by Claude Ryan, came up with a slogan punning on "non" [no] and "nomme" [name], which are homophones in French.  (See Quebec and the ROC.)



Since those days, I've thought someone needs to write an article entitled "The 'We' Vote in Quebec."  (Much as I hate to kill the pun with an explanation; to be safe, I should explain that "we" and "oui" [yes] are homophones.)


"We" yes; "ethnic nationalism" no

From a sovereigntist perspective, there are certain words that cannot be used to describe the movement for Quebec independence.  In 2013, Bloc Québécois member of parliament, Maria Mourani was expelled from the party for stating publically that many of her constituents viewed the Parti Québécois “Charte des valeurs" [Charter of Values] as ethnic nationalism.  "Ethnic nationalism" is verboten, but I think we can safely describe the sovereigntist position as being in favour of "we." "We" (in its various cases--us, our, ours) is a consistent presence in independentist slogans:  "Nous sommes un peuple" [We are a nation], "Maîtres chez nous" [Masters of our house], and the PQ slogan for the “Charte des valeurs":  “Parce que nos valeurs, on y croit” [Because our values, we believe in them].


"Nous et les autres"

Although it might be viewed as politically incorrect in recent times, the dichotomy of "nous" and "les autres" [the others] has always been a part of life in Quebec.  I grew up in a small town on the Quebec side of the Ontario/Quebec border.  From birth to retirement I spent virtually the entirety of my life and career in Quebec; as a bilingual anglophone, perennially perched on the divide between "nous" and "les autres."  Contrary to what you might imagine, most of the time, it wasn't a bad place to be.


Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America 

As the newly-installed Governor General of British North America, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, was tasked with writing the (in)famous Report in which he claimed:
There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature.
[ . . . .]
In these circumstances. I should be indeed surprised if the more reflecting part of the French Canadians entertained at present any hope of continuing to preserve their nationality. Much as they struggle against it, it is obvious that the process of assimilation to English habits is already commencing. 
Despite (or perhaps, in some small part, because of) Durham's predictions, the language and culture of the people of Quebec are still with us 180 years later.



How has Québécois culture survived?

Asking how French Quebec has lasted so well for so long, you might credit the enlightenment of the British Quebec Act of 1774  allowing French inhabitants to maintain their language, social structure (the seigneurial system) and religion (Catholicism), or modern Canadian federal policies of bilingualism and multi-culturalism.  However, within Quebec, the long-term objectives from The Conquest onward--including the Durham plan as well as multi-culturalism and bilingualism--are understood to be the reduction of the French of Quebec to one of many minorities, the tokenization of their language, and ultimately their assimilation within an English federalist system.

The real answer to the question of French Quebec's survival is the willingness of individual Québécois to privilege the collective over individual ambition, to think in terms of "we" rather than "I."   Quebec's language law (Bill 101) is a constant target of attack as it restricts the use of English on signs and requires immigrants to educate their children in French. What is truly striking, and rarely discussed, in the context of English being the lingua franca of North America and global business, is the willingness of the French-speaking majority of Quebecers to accept that their children may never learn to speak English (See "Yes, no, toaster").



Individual rights versus collective rights

The conundrum of parsing perceptions of and from Quebec boils down to the distinction between individual and collective rights. (Personally, I tend toward a libertarian, live-and-let-live view though I remain wary of radical individualism.)  As a minority in Canada and the Americas, francophone Quebecers are entitled to claim the collective rights of their language, culture and identity.  However, as the majority in Quebec, they are compelled to respect the individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of minorities within the province. When the collective rights of the Quebec majority collide with the individual rights of persons within Quebec, whose values should prevail?


Rights versus privileges

Quebec's privileging of the collective rights of the French-speaking majority--most often in the form of language laws (Bill 22 and Bill 101)--is typically met with incomprehension in the ROC and by minorities within Quebec. Conversely, what Anglo-Quebecers might claim as "rights"--the "right" to a public sign in English, the "right" to educate offspring in English--are viewed from a French perspective as "privileges." Actually, parents who were educated in English in Quebec themselves maintain the "privilege" of having their offspring educated in English in Quebec.


English common law versus Napoleonic civil code

A typical criticism of Quebec legislation (beyond the infringement of human rights) is that it tends to be a solution in search of a problem.  Certainly, this seems to be an apt critique of the recent Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State.

Is the wearing of religious symbols by persons in authority a threat to the collective rights of the people of Quebec?  The English common-law approach to solving this question would be to allow a number of cases to be brought to court; that is, a number of plaintiffs claiming that their rights had been prejudiced by someone wearing a religious symbol (a police officer, a judge or a teacher).  This jurisprudence, these precedent decisions of various judges, would eventually become the "common law."  The French tradition, in contrast, is more top-down.  A code of laws is enacted, and future judgments are based on that code.  This legal tradition, together with the privileging of collective rights, adds to incomprehension in the ROC.



The Bouchard/Taylor Commission on Religious Accommodation

In 2007, Professors Bouchard and Taylor were commissioned by the Liberal government in Quebec to review, analyze and make recommendations on  "Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation."  In what might be taken as a "common law" approach (although, obviously, the Commission was not a legal body), Bouchard and Taylor did a substantial stock-taking of all the legal cases related to religious accommodation in Quebec--73 cases over 22 years prior to June 2007.  What emerged from their review was that an "accommodation crisis" was being provoked by a series of fairly minor, misconstrued incidents which escalated because of media attention:
40 cases out of 73, were brought to the public’s attention during the period March 2006 to June 2007 alone. The investigation of the cases that received the most widespread media attention during this period of turmoil reveals that, in 15 of 21 cases, there were striking distortions between general public perceptions and the actual facts
as we were able to reconstitute them. In other words, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field.

Bouchard's and Taylor's repudiations of Bill 21 

As the authors of the report upon which Bill 21 is ostensibly based, it is telling that both Bouchard and Taylor have publicly stated their opposition to the legislation.  Taylor has flatly declared that he has changed his mind.  Bouchard argues that the timing was wrong, and the bill should not have been passed in the current climate of polarization.

The Separation of church and state is a French idea

The concept of laïcité (or, more commonly, "secularism" in English) is rooted in the French Revolution and the political desire to undo the domination of the Catholic Church. When Durham claimed that the French of Lower Canada were a people "without a history," he was no doubt considering that between the settlement of New France and the publication of his report in 1839, there had been a revolution in France, cutting the Québécois off--practically, ideologically and culturally--from the motherland.

Catholic church domination prevailed in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which prevents persons in authority from wearing religious symbols, is less broad than the law in France banning religious symbols which applies to all civil servants and to students in public schools and has been in force since 2011.  Bill 21 is less strident and overarching than the charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013.



Individual liberty:  the ultimate shared value in Western democracies

In Western democracies, there is a presumption that individual liberty is our ultimate shared value--which paradoxically makes it a collective value.  Part of our belief in individual rights is respect for the collective rights of minority groups.  To further confuse the paradox, all individual rights, upon reflection,  end up being collective.




Rights versus freedoms

Nour Farhat, a young lawyer with aspirations of becoming a crown attorney in Quebec,  has become the poster person in the conflict between individual religious rights and the collective aspirations of Quebec's becoming a secular society.  The question being asked in Quebec is: "Should Nour Farhat have the right to display her religious convictions while she is prosecuting someone who might be Jewish or Hindu or Buddist or Sunni or Shiite or Christian or an atheist?"  But the underlying question which Quebec has raised, since the opening discussion of a charter of values, is:  Are religious rights individual rights?   Interestingly, both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms identify religious expression as a "freedom" not a "right."  I have not, however, been able to find a succinct legal or constitutional distinction between a right and a freedom.


Freedom from Religion

The broader Freedom from Religion movement puts Quebec secularism in a slightly different perspective.  You might have seen Steven Pinker's endorsement of the Freedom from Religion Foundation television ads.  Pinker, himself an Anglo-Quebecer who studied at Dawson College and McGill University before moving on to California then Harvard, established his position as an avid atheist in his monograph Enlightenment Now.




While I have generally accepted the idea that Quebec has little to fear from the growth of Islam; not only is Islam the fastest-growing religion in the world but, as Pinker points out, its adherents have proven more faithful and tenacious in their religious beliefs than followers of any other religion.  In terms of (non)religious trends, the growth of Islam and of atheism have outstripped all other movements in Quebec in recent years.



It's about equality, stupid!

The purpose of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to create equality.  The problem with "being equal" is that it often seems to imply "being the same."  The challenge of our time is to honour equality and celebrate difference at the same time.  In Quebec, the interpolation to "join the family" and "become one of us" is frequently and reasonably met with wariness and skepticism.  As George Orwell pointed out in his allegorical novella, Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."


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