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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Quebec seeks singular identity in a polyglot world Add to ...

Is there any corner of the world that gnaws on the bone of its own identity more than Quebec?

Perhaps such places exist. But if so, they would be few in number.

Former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Benoît Pelletier once observed that in Quebec, all politics is identity politics. That might be a stretch, but not by much, because the issues that stir Quebeckers’ soul revolve around whom they believe themselves to be, and by whom and/or what that self-perception is threatened.

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Quebeckers are certainly world-beaters in finding new vocabulary to define themselves and their political relations: distinct society, two nations, sovereigntists, indépendentistes, federalists, asymmetrical federalists, special-status federalists, maîtres chez nous, to name but a few of the concoctions that testify to this ceaseless search for self-definition.

For more than four centuries – under the French, the British and as part of the Canadian Confederation – French speakers in the part of North America we call Quebec have existed, multiplied, survived, thrived and created what is, in many ways, an admirable society.

And yet, despite these achievements, there seems a nagging, existential, collective doubt that somehow the whole place might crumble, culturally, without a constant reaffirmation of who Quebeckers are. It is the reflex of a linguistic minority that has never been fully at ease with diversity, because that diversity is seen as somehow threatening, unless carefully defined and circumscribed.

The Parti Québécois government best reflects this existential nervousness, which it uses for its own political purposes – witness the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

If ever a false solution existed for a non-problem, this charter is it. Quebec already has a package of protections: a provincial charter of rights, various rights-upholding statutes, French-language legislation backed by an investigative bureau and laws against infringements.

Premier Pauline Marois, however, has a political problem. More than Quebec’s other parties, hers depends on this bone-gnawing existentialism. Her party’s ultimate ambition is to have Quebec secede from Canada and so become, in due course, an independent country.

Alas (for her), Quebeckers are less interested in that option than at any time in recent memory. So she must find something, anything, to keep the existential debate going, to play on that nervousness of identity dilution and to keep the party militants mollified.

Her government has therefore hit upon this charter of values, the most important of which seems to be full secularization of everything and everybody who represents the Quebec state. Out, therefore, for all state employees are turbans, head scarves, yarmulkes and, presumably, crosses.

With this charter, Quebec will have moved from being almost completely Catholic in its public face to being militantly anti-religious. Quebec’s new religion will be no religion. All in an attempt, organized from on high, to define Quebec’s “values.”

There is something deeply French, in the widest sense of the term, in this proposed charter. The approach springs from civil law, Catholic and even Cartesian inspirations: that there are abstract values and universalistic rules to which the complexity of the human experience must be adapted – in contrast to the common-law approach, whereby the law emerges from real-life situations and evolves over time.

Fitting reality to concept, rather than the other way around, has contributed over the past 50 years to the existential debates over Quebec’s identity – debates that have also played out in federal politics with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and vocabulary such as “distinct society” pushed by Quebec politicians.

Beyond its obvious partisan purposes, this proposed Charter is supposed to assuage whatever cultural nervousness exists in Quebec, presumably of the kind that popped up in the obscure town of Hérouxville. There, municipal councillors passed resolutions against sharia law or any other manifestations of Muslim culture in a town without Muslims.

Instead of Quebec’s values being rooted in the tolerance of difference publicly displayed, Quebec’s values are apparently those of publicly displayed uniformity. The respect for difference is apparently best protected by removing certain symbols of that difference.

This is a curious, backhanded way of organizing matters in an increasingly polyglot world. Unless, of course, being polyglot is considered a threat – which, four centuries of existence notwithstanding, would seem still to be the case in Quebec.

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