Slippery word, that nous.
It means “us,” but in Quebec it is arguably the most loaded of terms, its meaning dependent on who is uttering it.
Exhibit one: In 2007, former journalist and future PQ MNA Jean-François Lisé wrote Nous, a navel-gazing treatise on identity and belonging within Quebec’s Francophone majority. The book’s cover, a Benetton-worthy illustration of smiling multicoloured faces, pretty much says it all: in Quebec, everyone can be a Nous—provided they learn French.
Fast forward five years. In the run-up to September 2012’s election, the Parti Québécois unveils its campaign slogan, “C’est à nous de choisir” (It’s for us to choose). Taken on its own, it might have been as innocuous as one of those Benetton-worthy drawings on the cover of Lisée’s book. Except you couldn’t help but notice how the 2012 campaign was less Benetton ad than Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, version française: smiling, happy and entirely fleur-de-lis white from front to back.
Here, for example, is the campaign’s official video. Over stirring strings and choral voices, we hear Pauline Marois say, “Like all people of the world, we have the right to be ourselves,” with a cut to a handsome white woman. “We have the right to be proud of who we are,” she says, as the video cuts to a (white) father and son. “Proud of our values,” Marois says, with a shot of the building-sized crucifix atop Mont-Royal. “Proud of our language, proud of our youth.” Cue more white people, and then a few more to bring the whole thing to a roiling crescendo. Essentially, it’s a two-minute repudiation of Lisée’s charming notion of inclusion.
I bring this up as context to the “Quebec values charter,” the crisis du jour perpetuated by the PQ. The other day, Pauline Marois said a charter banning the wearing of religious symbols would be a “strong uniting force for all Quebecers.” The commentariat, both English and French, went into spleen-venting mode. What unity could possibly arise from singling out those by what they wear around their neck or over their hair?
Yet Marois was right, at least according to the blinkered logic dominating the present-day Parti Québécois. Along with being a perfect diversion from the government’s own mediocre-at-best record, as I wrote last week, the “Quebec values charter” is also a handy way to unite the disenchanted PQ voting base.
Despite being mostly well ensconced in their Baby Boomer years, the prototypical Parti Québécois supporter is at once frustrated with his party, his less-than-fervent neighbours and at still being part of the vast, multi-culti assimilation machine that is Canada. For the PQ, scapegoating religious types—and, in keeping the crucifix bolted to the National Assembly wall, protecting the boomer’s profoundly odd Catho-secular identity—is an electoral no-brainer.
So, yes, this “Quebec values charter” is uniting project—to any Quebecer who sees him or herself in the above video. The party spent years distancing itself from Jacques Parizeau’s post-referendal “money and the ethnic vote” bon mots in 1995; Lisée’s book was a warm and fuzzy attempt to redefine Nous to include the occasional non-Francophone in the mix. Time heals all wounds, I guess, because in pushing ahead with this “Quebec values charter,” the PQ is showing how the Parizeau strain of ethnic nationalism has once again come to the fore within the party.
As columnist Martin Bisaillon wrote recently, “Péquiste Boomers can be error-prone and harmful for our society when we let them have the monopoly on Quebec’s identity.” In this case, it’s the messy part of the PQ’s Nous equation: inevitably, there must be a Them.
In Montreal, there are Thems everywhere. Allophones, those whose first language is neither French nor English, make up nearly 25 per cent of the city’s population. Swelled by immigration from North Africa, the city’s Muslim population has nearly doubled since 2001, to roughly 220,000. Like the immigrant waves of yore, the recent arrivals to Quebec are comparatively young, religious and far better at making babies than les Québécois de souche. Many of them go to church, mosque or temple. Some wear pieces of cloth or jewelry attesting to that fact on their body.
As far as manufactured threats go, these “thems” are an easy target. Much was made this week of Le Journal de Montréal poll suggesting a sizeable majority of Quebecers support some sort of Quebec values charter—57 per cent, in fact, including 65 per cent of Francophones. Good numbers for the PQ, to be sure, except the poll didn’t provide any context of the importance of such a charter to, say, the economy.
Thankfully, the good people at L’Actualité weighed in this week with a poll of its own on the subject (not yet online, sadly). To wit: with just 7 per cent, the adoption of a Quebec values charter ranked second to last on a list of 11 suggested priorities for the government, behind the meat-and-potatoes trio of government spending, income tax reduction and the fight against corruption.
Perhaps the real threat to Quebec values isn’t the veiled woman, the yarmulke’d man, or the guy with the NDP-orange turban who cackles at my kid and tries to cajole me into his temple. The real threat, it seems, will be from the crushing indifference of Quebecers themselves.