Thursday, September 12, 2013

Left wing populism in Québec?

             In its desire to promote Québec as a "distinct society" in North America, the governing Parti Québécois (PQ) has sure found a way to stir the pot a bit. A proposed "Charter of Québécois Values" will, if passed in the Assemblée Nationale (Québec City), severely restrict the display of "ostentatious religious symbols" in many public offices and institutions: provincial government offices, universities, colleges, hospitals, day care centers.. 

             What to make of this? In the old Québec, before the Liberal "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for providing or administrating various social services: education, health, orphanges.. The Quiet Revolution was a wave of modernization and reform which brought the modern liberal welfare state to Québec. The province secularized with a vengeance, religious attendance plummeted, churches were sold off and converted into condos, we became the shack-up capital of North America and among the first in North America to legalize abortion on demand and gay marriage.. Québec separatist sentiments switched from the Right side of the political spectrum to the Left and gained support from the young, relatively affluent, educated Boomers. The PQ held out the promise of a social democratic secular paradise for an independant République du Québec. The sixties and seventies were heady times!

            Under the center Left / moderate Left policies of the PQ, living standards rose. Higher education became accessible to the masses. Literacy levels rose sharply. The salary gap between Anglos and Francos in the Province shrank. Speaking French was no longer a shame or a liability but a point of pride. The downside: it is hard to make a revolution if there is little evidence of the oppression wich feeds revolutionary fervor. Separatist ideologues were reduced to massaging economic statistics to "prove" that Québec would be better off without the Rest of Canada. Federalist ideologues, meanwhile, massaged the same set of states to "prove" it would be better to remain in the Canadian federation. The rise of the neo-con ideology has not helped either: narcissim is hardly compatible with self-sacrifice for the common good..

               Whatever the causes, one has the impression that the separatists movement has stagnated in support for the better part of quarter century, perhaps longer. The PQ can still win elections - they are in a minority government since September 2012 - but few today speak with real conviction of the "Mission": secession from the Canadian union. If they do, it is lip service to a vaguely envisioned Second Coming, not a battle cry to raise the troops.

              Recognizing the existential - and ontological - thiness of their position, the PQ seems to be searching for a means to reconnect with and engage the public. They seem to be searching for relevance, for the old creative spark. They want to return to the days when they could rally the People beneath the Big Tent, before the two defeated referenda (1980, 1995) relegated the independance dream to the dustbin of failed political dreams. One commentator recently observed that the PQ, in the first year of its mandate, tried various themes to revive interest and fighting spirit: the environment, the economy, protection of the French language.. None caught the public's attention for long. To speak truthfully, the PQ did not so much win the last election, rather the public decided to throw out the corrupt provincial Liberals. The PQ "won" by default. The public however, remained unresponsive and somewhat surly toward the new elected PQ who, generally, appeared to waffle and drift aimlessly without a fixed direction. Until now - the proposed charter of values has, at least, the virtue cutting through the apathy.. It is rare, I think, that a proposed piece of legislation manages to offend so many people in so many different ways.
             Unfortunately, with the proposed charter of values the PQ seem now to have turned toward populism as a means of currying favor with the electorate. This is a very dangerous move as the racially and ethnically motivated nationalistic movements of the 20th century tragically demonstrated.

           Many people are honestly confused by the current "secularity" debate in the Province, both its content and its timing. What problem is the charter of values intended to resolve? For example, "reasonable accomodations" with orthodox Jews in the Montréal region have existed forever: zoning regulations variations, for example. Friction arises between communities from time to time but usually blows over in a climate of general tolerance and goodwill.

          The last few decades, though have seen the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants from non-traditional sources: Vietnamese boat people, Muslims, Haitians, black Africans.. New, more demanding, "reasonable accomodations" were sought with the host community: hospitals found Muslim women refusing examination by male physicians. Worse, in the backlash of 9-11, the Muslim community was stigmatized with the suspicion of haboring terrorists, oppressing women, brainwashing children and - in several notorious cases - carrying our "honor killings" against women who had become too occidental in dress and morals. The background level of latent fear and hostility between communities began to rise.

           Into this increasingly tense situation, the PQ decided to venture with its inflammatory charter of values. Are they cracking open the lid of the box of populist hatred, oblivious to the consequences? - like that Greek gal, Pandora..


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