Legalized Islamophobia in Quebec

Benoit Renaud, a member of the left-wing party Québec Solidaire, provides the backdrop to the debate surrounding a new law targeting Muslim women in Quebec.

Quebec Premier Philippe CouillardQuebec Premier Philippe Couillard

ON OCTOBER 18, the Quebec National Assembly adopted Bill 62, making it illegal to wear a mask or any other clothing that covers the face when providing or receiving public services managed by the province or by municipalities. The law will primarily affect Muslim women who wear niqabs or a burqas.

This is the first piece of legislation to be adopted in Quebec after 10 years of debates on the definition of "secularism" and religious diversity. As with similar debates in France, the notion of Quebec as a secular society--encapsulated in the phrase "laïcité--has increasingly been used to primarily target the rights of Muslims.

All three opposition parties opposed Bill 62, but for two--Parti Québécois (PQ) and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)--it was because the bill wasn't restrictive enough. PQ and CAQ wanted a law that would ban any prominent religious garb--including the hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women; turbans worn by Sikhs; or kippahs worn by some Jewish men--for most or all public servants, following the example of France and other European countries.

Only the left-wing party Québec Solidaire (QS) criticized the new law for infringing on the rights of women who wear a niqab or a burqa. In its response to the passing of the bill, QS pointed out the absurdity of allowing these women to take taxis, but not buses, to go into book stores, but not libraries, etc.

Unfortunately, though, the QS response has been weak and superficial overall, with complicated formulations that hesitate to call the law what it is: a legalization of discrimination based on Islamophobia and a concession to the racist segment of public opinion.

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SINCE 2007, there has been a debate over what "reasonable accommodations" the state should provide for those who practice various religions.

The theory among leading QS figures, including its elected members of the National Assembly (MNAs), has been that the best possible outcome would be some broad compromise between most or all parties--under the theory that this would be the only way to prevent this type of media-fuelled political circus from further damaging relations between the majority of the population (which is generally agnostic, but with a Catholic background) and religious minorities.

Others in the party, including the author of this article, have pushed for a principled opposition to any legislation targeting Muslim women or other religious minorities.

We have said repeatedly that no amount of discrimination should be acceptable for us--but also that no legislative measures will ever be enough for the racists, who will continue to push until those they consider a threat are deported or decide to move to other parts of Canada. There is no balanced approach when it comes to human rights.

It should be noted as well that Quebec's National Assembly passed a motion in 2015 unanimously opposing Islamophobia, at the instigation of former QS MNA Françoise David.

But the passage of this new bill and the debates around it seem to indicate that none of the 125 members of the assembly fully understand what Islamophobia means--nor how their proposals and statements often fuel it.

Simply implying that the 100 or so niqab-wearing women in Quebec are a problem is Islamophobic. Arguing that judges or police officers should not be allowed to wear a hijab--as QS MNAs have argued since this was recommended by a special provincial commission in 2008--is also Islamophobic.

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QUEBEC HAS a human rights problem, and it's called "Canada."

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government repeatedly violated the human rights of the people of Quebec by denying our right to self-determination--similar to what Spain is currently doing today with Catalonia--and engaging in systematic police surveillance of pro-independence movements, socialists and radical union activists.

This culminated with the War Measures Act of 1970, when the army was sent to occupy major cities in Quebec. The police proceeded with thousands of home searches with no warrants and hundreds of arrests with no charges.

When the first PQ government passed the French Language Charter (Bill 101) in 1977, several organizations representing the English-speaking minority, backed by the English-language media and federalist (anti-independence) politicians, attacked that government for infringing on their human rights.

This was nonsense. Bill 101 declared that French was the only official language and included incentives for large businesses (50 employees or more) to adopt French (the main language spoken by 85 percent of the population) as the language of the workplace. It also required all children to attend French schools, except those of parents who had gone to English schools in Quebec. It demanded that department stores and other large businesses use French on their storefronts.

It was a symptom of the problem that downtown Montreal in the 1970s looked just like downtown Toronto, including English-only signs. It was also unacceptable that businesses owned by U.S. or Anglo-Canadian capitalists, but with a French-speaking workforce, would conduct their activities in English.

Bill 101 was about the right of the French-speaking majority of Quebec to live their lives in French, and for French-speaking workers to work in French. But of course, this went against the privileges of the English-speaking minority, a community with a long history of racism against the French-speaking majority.

Calling the movement for Quebec independence or the measures taken to preserve the French language "racist" was precisely like using the term "racism against white people" to attack affirmative action and policies aimed at improving the situation of people of color.

Calling the movement for independence racist and comparing it with Nazi Germany was commonplace in the English media and political discourse until the late 1990s--in the period of panic surrounding a 1995 referendum on whether Quebec should proclaim national sovereignty and become an independent country. The movement for Quebec sovereignty lost that referendum by only 1 percentage point, with a turnout of over 95 percent.

The constitutional crisis leading to that referendum began when the other nine provinces and the federal government reached an agreement without Quebec to change the Canadian constitution and make it a Canadian law. It had originally been adopted by Britain's parliament in 1867 and could only be modified through London.

This new constitution included a formula for amendments making it possible for the rest of Canada to change it further without the consent of Quebec, the only province with a French-speaking majority. It also included articles designed specifically to undermine the French Language Charter adopted in 1977, bowing to the pressure of the English minority in Quebec.

These provisions denying Quebec the right to enact legislation protecting its language and culture were included in a Bill of Rights. As a result, 200 articles of Bill 101 had to be modified following a string of court proceedings.

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CONSIDERING THIS troubled history, it isn't difficult to understand why a significant movement of conservative Quebec nationalism could develop through the 1990s and 2000s around a rejection of everything Canada claimed to stand for--including the 1982 Bill of Rights and the policy of multiculturalism.

Canada has allowed anti-French racism to marginalize French minorities in other provinces for generations. It has used false accusations of racism and human rights violations to undermine the ability of the Quebec government to protect the French character of the only territory with a French-speaking majority.

It's remarkable that the main organizations targeted by that colonialist rhetoric have resisted a turn toward conservative ethnic nationalism until 2007, when the "reasonable accommodation" debate propelled the third party at that time--the Action Démocratique du Québec, now known as the Coalition Avenir Québec--into second place in the elections, in front of the PQ.

Only the wave of Islamophobia taking over the world after the 9/11 attacks was able to push Quebec nationalism in that direction. Its lowest point so far has been the Charter of Values proposed by the PQ government in 2013.

Fortunately, that minority government was brought down before the Charter of Values could be passed into law. But both CAQ and PQ--whether on their own or as part of a coalition--could bring back a similar legislation if they win the next election, scheduled for October 2018.

Québec Solidaire can and must provide a rallying point for those who reject this Islamophobic and ethnic nationalist trend--and who want our independence project to be about more democracy and more rights, not less.

In order to do so, we have to clarify and sharpen our criticism of Bill 62 and of the current proposals by the PQ and CAQ for a new version of the Charter of Values.

These are unpleasant and often frustrating debates. But our ability to swim against the stream and oppose commonly held assumptions and prejudice is at stake. Not meeting this challenge would be a failure of historic proportions for QS and possibly the beginning of the end for its entire political project. It would also signal the likely failure of any further struggle for independence.

Quebec will become a nation based on democratic principles and an inclusive definition of its collective identity--or it will slowly leave the stage of history and become a quaint tourist attraction for bored North American consumers.