A certain government bedevilled by an underperforming economy and an unpopular leader enacts legislation that targets a historically persecuted minority in hopes of raising its lagging fortunes with voters.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or Pauline Marois’s Quebec? Both, actually.
Misère, I hear many saying. Surely you’re not comparing Russia’s gay-baiting kleptocrat with the leader of the cheery, lefty, gay-friendly sovereignist leader of Quebec?
Well, yes. The stakes aren’t anywhere near the same, and the legislation is couched in vastly different language, but the politics of Putin’s article 6.21 that bans so-called “gay propaganda” and the Marois government’s “Quebec values charter” are practically identical. That is to say, both seek to gain electorally by scapegoating the “other.”
In Russia, it’s homosexuals—those adherents of “nontraditional sexual relations,” in the words of the law’s weirdly genteel legalese. For the Quebec government, the scapegoats of choice are anyone who dares wear a kippa, hijab, cross, turban or any other religious decoration. As the Journal de Montréal notes, “The Marois government not only wants to ban the Islamic headscarf and other religious signs from the public service and the courts, but from daycares, schools and hospitals as well.”
This is all maddeningly familiar. You’ll recall how in 2007, a wee village named Hérouxville wrote out a “code of conduct” for prospective immigrants. It was facile stuff— Christmas trees and voting women: IN! Public prayer and genital mutilation: OUT!—that touched off a collective public spleen venting known as the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
More worryingly for the PQ, the kerfuffle allowed the rightist ADQ to champion “Quebec values” —which is traditional PQ territory. The “Quebec values charter,” which the government will introduce in the coming parliamentary session, is the Parti Québécois’s attempt to be champion once again. In this case, it seems the goal is to make religious accoutrements as offensive in Quebec as “gay propaganda” is in Russia: something to be shunned by government and, by extension, society as a whole.
It’s also exactly the distraction the PQ desperately needs. The party has been woefully, almost chronically unpopular since its election last September. Today’s CROP poll has the party at 63 per cent dissatisfaction rate. The government’s flip-flops on the health tax, mining royalties, taxation, low-income housing subsidies, electricity rates, language laws and private school funding have made Jean Charest look steadfast by comparison. Last month, Quebec was responsible for more than 30,000 of the 39,400 net jobs lost in the country.
These measures, should they become law, will only exacerbate the serious problem of immigrant employment in Quebec. Already, at 11.9 per cent, Quebec has the highest immigrant unemployment rate in the country—more than double the rate of Canadian-born Quebecers, according to Statistics Canada.
Given the nature of Quebec’s immigration policy, the PQ is targeting immigrant women. According to a Statistics Canada study, immigration from Islamic countries has doubled since 2001, and represents nearly 10 per cent of Montreal’s population. Oddly enough, this has meant a boon to the French language, as the bulk of the immigration is from French-speaking North Africa. Language hawks should rejoice: The number of unilingual English-speaking immigrants has decreased by three percentage points between 2006 and 2011.
Yet by virtue of a thin piece of cloth covering one’s head, these identity measures will effectively bar a significant percentage of this population from the workforce. Not only is it overkill—Quebec already has a law against covered faces when giving or receiving government services—it’s counterintuitive. How exactly does keeping a significant portion of an already-vulnerable group artificially unemployed foster Quebec values?
The answer doesn’t matter, because the PQ has never asked the question. The party is doing as Putin does: concentrate on knee-jerk identity matters to rally the base—a bit of flash powder to keep attention away from a rather abysmal record. And because it is plainly in contravention with the Charter, the proposed Quebec values charter sets the table for a constitutional conflict, for which the PQ has been pining since Meech Lake.
Yet while marginalizing gays in Russia worked like hell, scapegoating religious minorities in Quebec won’t likely have the same effect. As this summer’s turban soccer ban proved, identity measures make a lot of noise but don’t have much effect on poll numbers. Despite Marois’ post-Mégantic bump, Philippe Couillard remains the most popular leader in the province. The PQ’s last bit of minority-baiting distraction, Bill 14, landed with a dull thud before the opposition effectively gutted it in the National Assembly.
It seems Quebecers aren’t nearly as preoccupied with the supposed Kippa threat as Russians are with practitioners of “nontraditional sexual relations.” Thank God (and Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu and Onkar) for small blessings.