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Religious symbols debate in Quebec - Where are the PQ Progressives?

Since 2007 in Quebec (the francophone province in Eastern Canada), we’ve had an ongoing problem with navel-watching.  Different provincial parties, whether on the right or the left, have focussed at various times on the issue of “identity” in the province.  Progressive notions of inclusiveness and shared values have often times been thrown out the window over the past 6 years.  Why?

The modern version starts with Mario Dumont, leader of the now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec Party.  Whether due to the war on terror post-9/11 or the reawakening of an underlying current in Quebec politics, he tried, in the lead-up to the 2007 provincial elections, to rile up Quebecers over the notion of “reasonable accommodations.”  A small, essential homogenous village in central Quebec, tried to outlaw “stonings” and “veil wearing.”  The debate went viral across the province.  It almost started a civil war, and it took a parliamentary commission to calm things down.  The Liberals under Jean Charest won a minority government, but the ADQ did incredibly well based on the reasonable accommodation file.

Quebec is an interesting place.  It’s very much like a normal western country – low demographic growth by domestic birth-rates, and a high level of immigration to, well, offset demographic issues caused by those low birth rates.  Most immigrants who come in to Quebec, due to language requirements, are from former French colonies or regions with historical roots – central Africa, francophone Asia, and north Africa.  But outside of the island of Montreal, there are very few immigrants, per capita, as compared to the big city.

And, often times, rural and suburban folks can be a bit apprehensive about change, especially when it wears a kipa, or a hijab, or a turban.  Francophone quebecers have been generally less tolerant of change than anglophones and allophones in Quebec.  I don’t want to paint everyone with the same colour (my partner is a francophone), but it generally holds.

With the election in 2012 of a Parti-Québécois government under Pauline Marois, we’re back into those same discussions…again.  The Liberals, after (too) many years in power, were ousted in a tight election that September that many predicted the PQ would win with a majority.  The Marois government failed to do so, and perhaps because of a lack of clear innovative policy options, perhaps because of questions of leadership (her own), or perhaps because the economy, has never gained any traction in public opinion polls since.

Given that the PQ relies on the traditional francophone vote in rural areas, identity issues have always been close to their heart.  With that in mind, this past fall the traditionally left-of-centre, the PQ when far to the right, attacking the progressive position that the PQ has held since its first election in 1976, one where Quebec society (and eventually a Quebec state) would accept everyone as a member of its society, irrespective of race, religion and so on.  The government attempted to introduce a “Charter of Quebec Values,” which, among other things, maintain the religious neutrality of the state by, predominantly, banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols of public sector employees (teachers, nurses, police, municipal officials, bureaucrats, etc.).  This set off a heated debate, and like in 2007 extraordinarily divisive.

Why?  Was it because of public opinion polls, which showed both little support for the PQ core goal of sovereignty, or little support for the government of Mrs. Marois?  And why do supporters of the PQ continue to, well, support the Charter, while most members of other parties, including sovereignist ones, do not?  Where has all the progress gone from one of the most progressive parties in the history (just one example – universal daycare at $5 a day…) of western democracies?

 

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