This past summer, my wife and I moved from Montreal to Winnipeg. I’m originally from Nova Scotia; my wife is from southern Ontario. Quintessentially Canadian, Quebec was our home for 28 years. As Quebecers, we vigorously defended Bill 101 as both necessary and effective in ensuring that new immigrants embraced the French language in their daily lives. We proudly displayed the certificates of French language competency issued by the Office de la langue français, which allowed us to practice our professions in Quebec. Comfortable in both English and French, language politics had nothing to do with our westward move.
Nevertheless, the debate surrounding the new secular charter is an altogether different beast. Say what you will of Jacques Parizeau, he is not stupid. When he blamed the “ethnic vote” for the narrow sovereigntist defeat at the polls in 1995, he was referring to people like us: Despite working in French and embracing much of the PQ’s political agenda, we were unabashed federalists. Like the children of Bill 101, we recognized the xenophobic streak (more ‘peur des autres’ than hate) that drives the PQ’s distinct brand of identity politics despite an increasingly cosmopolitan ethnic mix, particularly in Montreal. Although it dates back to René Lévesque, the political calculus of many sovereigntists depends on the idea that speaking French would make us sympathetic to the independentiste agenda; Mr. Parizeau merely stated the obvious, that immigrant communities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in Canada. Fast forward two decades that saw Quebec gain control of its own immigration policy to favour French speakers from places like Haiti and North Africa, and these new Quebeckers are still leery of their place in an independent Quebec.
In this context, the secular charter is a short-term and misguided political tactic. Popular in the hinterlands where few immigrants actually live, it is intended to secure a PQ majority victory. In Montreal, it will also engender a long-lasting suspicion among immigrants who may have accepted the notion that they were part of an ‘inclusive’ definition of Quebec society based on geography and language. Mr. Parizeau was right; without them, the dream of an independent Quebec is dead. To win support for a PQ majority government, Ms. Marois has probably sacrificed the last, best chance to win a referendum on secession. Expelled Bloc MP Maria Mourani is right; history will show this to be a political miscalculation of the highest order and the end of any hope that Quebec will achieve independence at the polls. I can’t speak for others, but on July 1 (by Quebec law, this is after all “moving day”), I will raise a toast to Ms. Marois. Like Riel in my new home, she may some day be remembered as an unwitting mother of Confederation; oh, the irony of silver linings.
Dr. Atul Sharma is a retired paediatrician and biostatistician, who has recently relocated from Montreal to Winnipeg with his wife Celia Rodd