In 2007, Quebec had a provincial election. It didn’t go well.
The result was what it was: a minority government, an inherently unstable beast that necessitated a repeat of the exercise less than two years later. Democracy, clumsy as it is, can also be expensive and inconvenient. Schmidt happens, I guess.
No, the 2007 campaign was bad because of the substance of the campaign. You might recall such things as Hérouxville, frosted windows at the YMCA, face coverings on the faces of Islamic women, and the proper size, shape and type of religious garnish one may or may not be wearing around one’s neck.
To be sure, the debate over “reasonable accommodations,” the rather polite moniker given to the mess, was happening in one form or another across the country as it was in much of the western world. But for one specific reason—the usurping of the reasonable accommodations debate by politicians for wholly electoral ends—the collective fit of pique was both louder and longer than in anywhere else in Canada. It was crass and cynical when it happened in 2007. And it’s starting again in earnest in 2013.
Herouxville, you may recall, is the charming town about 200 km northeast of Montreal that in 2007 forbade the stoning, burning and genital mutilation of women. Nothing of the sort came close to happening in Herouxville, of course, which doesn’t really matter. The idea, according to the geniuses on the Herouxville town council that devised this so-called “code of conduct for immigrants” was that it could happen—and, by inference, would happen if “immigrants” (that marvelously reductionist term) were to penetrate Hérouxville city limits in any sufficient number.
Why, just look at Montreal. They may not yet be burning or stoning women, or even mutilating their genitals—but look! Immigrants (Hassidic Jews) are asking for frosted windows! Immigrants (Islamic Arabs, mostly) are wearing face coverings! They (Jews) are serving kosher food in “their” hospital! One day they’re asking for frosted windows to frustrate the eyes of their pubescent offspring; next, they’ll be asking for genital mutilation permits from city hall. To think otherwise, so the Hérouxville reasoning goes, is not to see the giant slippery slope dangling off the island of Montreal and sluicing its cosmopolitan filth into the rest of the province.
Absurd? Alarmist? Reactionary? Yup. And it worked like hell. The rightist Action démocratique du Québec flogged the reasonable accommodations horse. “Multiple incidents in which public institutions decided to put aside our own common values to satisfy the demands of certain communities has created a debate within Quebec society,” wrote Mario Dumont, then leader of the ADQ. Dumont goes on to blame Quebecers’ “old persistent reflex” of folding in the face of confrontation.
It’s classic straw man: inflate the significance of a few isolated incidents; lay on the self-flagellation; then promise to restore, as Dumont did, the “common values and affirm out collective personality.” Roughly two months later, Dumont and the ADQ had a huge electoral victory, winning 41 seats, 30 per cent of the popular vote and punting the Parti Québécois into third place by becoming Quebec’s Official Opposition.
Short story: the ADQ crapped out, more a victim of its own ineptitude than anything else. Meanwhile, a lengthy series of province-wide hearings on “reasonable accommodations” beat the subject nearly to death. We haven’t heard much on the topic since. Until last week.
On May 22, the governing Parti Québécois released a poll it commissioned on the subject of “religious accommodations” (note the not-very-subtle change) that effectively said what everyone already knows: Quebecers, like many westerners, aren’t altogether comfortable with the idea. Naturally, the PQ had a solution, released at the same time as the poll results: a charter of Quebec values. “The time has come for us to rally around our common values,” said “democratic institutions and citizen participation” minister Bernard Drainville.
Drainville, a journalist by trade, knows a news hook when he sees one; just as the poll came out, he seized on how, in the Montreal borough of Côte-Des-Neiges-NDG, observant Jews were allowed to disregard parking restrictions during the holiday of Shavuot.
“You cannot start having parking rules that are different according to your religion. There will be no end to it,” Drainville told journalists, before uttering one of the most absurd phrases I’ve ever heard: “How can we live together in the same society, if we start having different parking regulations according to different religions?”
Never mind that the borough in question has eased parking restrictions for 30 years without any fuss at all, or that they begin and end with the two-day Shavuot celebration within the boundaries of CDN-NDG. For the PQ, it’s just another slippery slope, mere steps away from genital mutilation and the like.
And here’s the nastiest part of the whole thing: it’s politically motivated. The Parti Québécois is starved for support, even amongst its faithful. Bill 14, the party’s much-ballyhooed attempt to raise Quebecers’ collective angst surrounding the French language, was a flop. Sadly for the PQ, Francophones aren’t nearly as anxious about the future of French as they were, say, 20 years ago. So, the party has simply changed scapegoats. As (noted sovereignist) columnist Josée Legault wrote recently:
By treading on the “values” territory knowing the subject won’t likely go away, this “call” launched to the “population” will in all likelihood be the theme of the next election campaign. The PQ hopes that between now and then, the question of “values” could help win precious votes, which it will sorely need if the polls remain as bad as they are now.
The last thing Quebec needs is a throwback to 2007. But in all likelihood that is exactly what it’s going to get.