There’s something about the Quebec nationalist movement that has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I don't just mean the idea of Quebec as separate from the rest of Canada, or any of the compromises offered over the years to give the Quebecois a degree of independence. I've never had any difficulty recognising them as a distinct society within Canada. They are one of many.
Nor do I hesitate accepting the claims of any of the aboriginal nations as distinct. It would be hypocritical to accept their claims but not those of the Quebecois. With its own civil code, language, and a single dominant faith (Roman Catholic), French Quebec is defiantly distinct from the rest of Canada.
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the fact that the nationalist movement is based on ethnicity. Whenever you start pitting yourself against the rest of the world based on something as emotional as ethnic background, you're lighting a fuse on a potential powder keg of hatred and intolerance.
One need look no further then the ethnic cleansings in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Rwanda, to see what happens in extreme cases of ethnic nationalism. I'm not saying that Quebec nationalists are capable of carrying out those types of activities. But there have been indications that some nationalists who view ethnic minorities as a threat do hold some extreme views.
When the Parti Quebecois was first elected to office it passed a series of laws designed to ensure that French remained the predominant language of the province. In addition to Bill 101 that made Quebec officially French speaking only, there also was legislation involving immigrants and where they could send their children to school.
If you already spoke English you would be permitted to send your child to the English language Protestant school system. In all other instances, the children of immigrants would have to attend French-speaking schools, in the hope that they would become part of the “French only” society.
While some of the measures could be called draconian and definitely infringe on civil liberties, they do not single out anyone in particular for attack. All non-French speakers are equally affected by the proposals. Canadian provinces are indeed allowed to set their own educational standards, and Quebec has controlled its own immigration policies since Canada came into being, if not earlier.
Swinging to the right
In the early days of Parti Quebecois, there had never even been a hint of anything like antipathy against other ethnic groups. When the party first assumed power in the mid 70s it provided a socially liberal government. Only later, in the mid 80s, did its leadership begin to swing to the right.
Coincidentally or not, that's when the first indication emerged that there might be any sort of racism within the party. It was late in the evening after probably the closest-ever vote in a referendum on the sovereignty issue, and the crowds had gathered to hear Jacques Parizeau's concession speech. As leader of the Parti Quebecois, it fell on him to provide consolation after their loss by the smallest margin yet. He had come within a hair’s breadth of being given a mandate by the people of Quebec to begin negotiating the terms for separation. A swing of a few thousand votes could have made a difference.
Maybe Parizeau knew he was done for and was going to have to step down as leader anyway, or perhaps he was just angry and frustrated enough to let his real feelings show. He launched into a blistering tirade, accusing immigrants of not being real Quebecois; it was their fault that the referendum had been lost.
No amount of damage control or apologies could save Mr. Parizeau from a well-deserved trip to the rubbish heap of history, but the Parti Quebecois managed to hang on. It conducted one more sovereignty referendum that again failed by the smallest of margins. According to exit polls it was obvious that the majority of immigrants voted against the initiative. Most of them of them admitted to some fear about how they would be treated in a sovereign Quebec.
Of course, the pro-federalist campaign had played on those fears in their efforts to ensure that the referendum was defeated. What was significant was that it was the first time this had even been an issue in a referendum.
When the Parti Quebecois went down to defeat in the subsequent provincial election, the immigrant vote swung to the new Liberal government. The immigrant voters are mainly in Montreal as the largest city in Quebec. But since most of Montreal would have voted Liberal in any event, it was not seen to be a sign of anything significant.
Suddenly, this week
With the Liberal Party now seemingly safely ensconced in power and performing the tricky balancing act of keeping both Quebec nationalists and federalists happy, the whole ethnic issue had evidently faded away. That is, until this week, when Mario Dumont, the leader of the conservative provincial political party l'Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) released a letter warning about the dangers of bending over backwards to accommodate minorities.
He said that Quebec must take measures to protect its national identity and the "values that are invaluable." Of course, he didn’t mention what those values might be or how immigrants pose any sort of threat to them. But that's not the point. The point is to whip up mistrust and hatred against those who are to blame for our troubles.
His letter went on to say that Quebec needs its own constitution that would define which compromises should be made to minority ethnic and religious groups. He contended that recent concessions granted to various minorities present a threat to what he terms "old-stock Quebecois.” It's hard to imagine that anybody in this day and age would actually say things like that in public while holding political office. It sounds far too much like something out of Nazi Germany and their obsession with “racial purity.”
The ADQ is not a fringe party in Quebec politics. They do hold seats in the Quebec parliament, even though they won't be forming a government at any time in the near future. Their leader wouldn't say something like that without believing there is some measure of support.
When you think about it, I guess it's not that much different from what any conservative politician says about family values. But they aren't usually talking about creating a constitution that will outline restrictions on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. That sounds a little too much like Jim Crow laws and official segregation. One set of rights for the majority and another for the minorities is not a democracy.
Quebec nationalism, as envisioned by its founders in the 50s and 60s, was set on making French Canadians equal partners in Canada. Somewhere along the line, the concept of equality has been lost – replaced with the notion of separate and better. Depriving certain people of basic rights while protecting your own: for all our sakes, let’s hope the nationalists aren’t serious about going down that road.