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opinion

Manitoba has always played a counterintuitive role in uniting francophone Quebeckers, who have long watched their linguistic cousins in the Prairie province fight a losing battle for their cultural survival against a hostile government.

In 1988, it was Manitoba that signalled the beginning of the end for the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which proposed to recognize Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. Then-premier Gary Filmon, who led a minority Progressive Conservative government, seized on Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause (to shield its language law from a Supreme Court ruling striking down a ban on English signs) to withdraw his support for the accord.

Meech’s death in 1990, for which Manitoba shared responsibility with Newfoundland, lit Quebec’s sovereignty movement on fire, putting Canada through more than five years of ugly unity battles for which it paid a heavy price, and that almost caused it to cease to exist.

Last week, current Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister kept up his province’s tradition of playing an unhelpful role in national affairs by taking out ads in Quebec newspapers inviting those offended by a law that prohibits some public employees from wearing religious symbols to move to his province. The ads even had the gall to suggest Manitobans speak French, when the percentage of residents who claim it as their first language fell to 3.3 per cent in 2016.

Perhaps Mr. Pallister should have spent a few weeks on the ground in Quebec first. Maybe his perspective on the law and the province’s distinctiveness might have changed. Instead of jumping up on his high horse, perhaps he would have learned enough about Quebec’s difficult history with the separation of church and state to stay out of its business.

Indeed, until the Quiet Revolution, there was no separation of church and state in Quebec. Women didn’t even win the right to vote in provincial elections until 1940, in large part because Catholic Church officials long insisted that women’s suffrage violated the laws of nature. So there’s a particular context in Quebec that makes the topic of religion in the public sphere somewhat touchier than in Manitoba or other Canadian provinces.

You don’t have to support Bill 21 – the law adopted this year by the Coalition Avenir Québec government that prohibits public employees in a position of authority (including teachers) from wearing a hijab, kippa or turban on the job – to appreciate that most francophone Quebeckers are uncomfortable with the prospect of religion creeping back into the very public institutions from which they long fought to exclude it. Bill 21 put an end to more than a decade of clamouring for government action on this issue.

The Quebec Liberal Party paid a devastating price by trying to sweep this issue under the rug when it was in power, and by opposing Bill 21 when it came up for a vote in the National Assembly. Not only was it clobbered in the 2018 provincial election, the party lost its only remaining seat east of Montreal to the CAQ in Monday’s by-election in a Quebec City riding that it had held for more than 50 years. A Nov. 26 Léger Marketing poll put the Liberals at 15-per-cent support among francophone voters, compared with 46 per cent for the CAQ.

Unless the Liberals figure out how to reconnect with francophone Quebeckers, the party faces a future as basically a lobby group for the province’s anglophone and non-francophone minorities. That would be neither good for Quebec nor for Canada as a whole, since the Liberals are the only unwaveringly federalist party in the National Assembly.

The two current candidates for the Liberal leadership – former economy minister Dominique Anglade and Drummondville Mayor Alexandre Cusson – both recently conceded they would not seek to repeal Bill 21. Nor would either extend the use of the notwithstanding clause to shield the law from a constitutional challenge beyond 2024. The law is already the subject of a court challenge, however, and could be suspended pending a hearing into its constitutionality.

There is little doubt about how francophone Quebeckers would respond if the law were to be struck down by the Supreme Court. They would react the same way they did to the 1988 ruling striking down the sign law – with indignation. It took a few more years for the province’s politicians to find a workable compromise that upheld the rights of the anglophone minority while protecting the predominance of French on outdoor signs.

It may take Quebec longer yet to come to a workable compromise on the rights of religious minorities while protecting its secularist values. The rest of Canada should give it time. For now, though, Mr. Pallister has only united francophone Quebeckers behind Bill 21 even more. They feel they’ve been condescended to by the Manitoba Premier. Well done, sir.