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Patrick Lagacé
Patrick Lagacé

Patrick Lagacé

The PQ’s not racist – just running scared Add to ...

I’m so relieved today. The Parti Québécois government has finally decided to protect my national identity by acting against this unspeakable threat to our values: daycare workers wearing hijabs!

Forgive my sarcasm. I just can’t get my head around the fact that Pauline Marois’s government is creating a solution in search of a problem with Tuesday’s long-awaited announcement about the Charter of Quebec Values.

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The charter, as most of us now know, will forbid not only public servants but also employees of institutions that receive some sort of public funding (schools, hospital, daycare centres) from wearing visible religious signs on the job. Those include kippas, turbans, Islamic veils (hijabs, niqabs, burkas – all the same) or a “very visible” crucifix.

Just to make sure that we “get it,” in terms of what is permissible and what is not, commissioned pictograms of the kippa, hijab, turban (banned), necklace crucifix and Star of David rings (allowed). Yes, pictograms ! This is Mr. Rogers meets modernity. I feel like a child witnessing this.

This is the PQ’s reponse, almost seven years in the making, to its near-death experience in the 2007 general election, when it not only failed to dislodge Jean Charest’s Liberals but was relegated to third-party status, behind the Action Démocratique du Québec.

The ADQ had won Official Opposition status by capitalizing on a rash of “reasonable accommodation” cases that made their way into the headlines toward the end of 2006 and early 2007. The PQ vowed it would never again be outmatched on the turf of identity politics. Given what we saw Tuesday, it can be said that neither the Coalition Avenir Québec (born from the ashes of the ADQ) or the Quebec Liberal Party want to go as far as the PQ is proposing.

Indeed, “proposing” is the operative verb here. This being a minority legislature, the PQ will likely fail in enacting its proposed charter, which is already opposed by the CAQ and the Liberals. Nevertheless, it positions the PQ as the sole defender of Quebec’s identity.

So the charter won’t see the light of day in this government’s mandate. But that’s not the point. The point is to make the next general election – it could happen any time, especially if Quebeckers’ support for the charter remains strong – about identity.

Yes, the charter will likely be challenged in the courts, if eventually enacted by a majority PQ government. But even a court rebuke would be seen by the PQ as a victory in the long term, especially if the Supreme Court strikes down some of its key components. Ms. Marois could then tell Quebeckers that a sovereign Quebec would not have to submit to Ottawa’s court in such matters.

Here in Quebec, you will not find a lot of people who don’t agree that the state should be religiously neutral, that it should not favour one religion or another. Fifty years after the Quiet Revolution, when Quebeckers pushed for a divorce between church and state – and got it – we are still wary of religion’s influence on public life. This is a land, after all, where the Roman Catholic Church had a backward influence on society for centuries.

The Péquiste troops don’t hesitate to recall the Quiet Revolution’s secular victory to claim that their charter is just the logical next step. It might be true if the huge crucifix sitting atop the president of the National Assembly were also targeted for removal by the charter – which it isn’t, because this crucifix is about cultural heritage, not religion. (PQ ministers actually say this about the crucifix without laughing.)

For English Canada and some media quarters, the easy thing is to depict the PQ as a racist party bent on bashing immigrants. I know the image of a racist PQ – and a racist Quebec – is held as fact by a lot of Canadians, but I think it is false.

As a journalist, I’ve interviewed many Péquistes over the years. I’ve known some of the PQ cabinet ministers personally since before they entered politics. These are not racist people. If you think the PQ is like some of those right-wing anti-immigration parties in Europe, you need to read more interviews with people from those European parties. Take it from someone who has interviewed Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National.

These PQ ministers aren’t racists. They’re part of a party that was scared to death in 2007 when it realized that identity politics in 21st century Quebec have little to do with protecting French, and everything to do with mitigating the arrival in the public sphere of individual displays of religion – displays other than the ones Quebeckers were used to, at least. Muslim ones, mostly.

I know that I am in the minority when I say that Quebec’s identity doesn’t need to be protected by little pictograms parsing how big a crucifix can be on a necklace. And if Quebec’s identity is threatened by daycare workers who dare to wear hijabs in front of four-year-olds, well, this identity is really weak to begin with. Which I don’t think, actually – quite the opposite.

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist for Montreal’s La Presse.

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