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Canadian Politics: The Dark Side Of Quebec Nationalism

There has always been something that has left me a little uncomfortable about the Quebec nationalist movement. I don't just mean the idea of a separate Quebec from the rest of Canada or any of the number of compromises offered over the years to give them a degree of independence. I've never had any argument with recognising them as a distinct society within Canada; they are one of many.

I don't hesitate in accepting the claims of any of the aboriginal nations as distinct and it would be hypocritical on my part to accept their claims and not those of Quebecois. With it's own civil code of law, language, and a single dominant faith (Roman Catholic) French Quebec is most defiantly distinct from the rest of Canada.

What has left the taste in my mouth is the fact that it is a nationalist movement based on ethnicity. Whenever you start pitting yourself against the rest of the world based on something as emotional as ethnic background you're lighting a fuse on a potential powder keg of hatred and intolerance.

One need look no further then the ethnic cleansings of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to see what happens in extreme cases of ethnic nationalism. I'm not saying that Quebec nationalist are capable of carrying out those types of activities, but there have been indications that some nationalists who see ethnic minorities as a threat have some extreme views.

When the Parti Quebecois were first elected to office they passed a series of laws that were designed to guarantee that French stayed the predominant language of the province. Aside from Bill 101 that made Quebec officially French speaking only, there were laws pertaining to immigrants and where they could send their children to school.

If you already spoke English you would be permitted to send your child to the English language Protestant school system. In all other instances the children of Immigrants would have to attend school in French, no matter what their mother tongue was, in the hope that they would become part of the French only society.

While some of the measures could be called draconian and definitely are infringements on civil liberties, the law making it illegal for any signage to be in any language but French for instance, they do not single out anyone in particular for attack. All non-French speakers are equally affected by the proposals. Canadian provinces are allowed to set their own educational standards, and Quebec has had control over it's own immigration policies since Canada came into being, if not earlier.

In fact there had never even been a hint of anything like antipathy against other ethnic groups, in the early days of the Parti Quebecois. They were actually considered quite a socially liberal government when they first took power in the mid seventies. It was only later that their leadership began to swing to the right, in the mid eighties. Coincidently or not that's when the first indication came that there might be any sort of racism within the party.

It was late in the evening after probably the closest ever vote in a referendum on the sovereignty issue and the crowds had gathered to hear Jacques Parizeau's concession speech. As leader of the Parti Quebecois it fell to him to console them after their loss by the smallest margin yet. He had come within a hairs breadth of being given permission by the people of Quebec to begin negotiating the terms for separation. A swing of a few thousand votes could have made a difference.

Maybe Parizeau knew he was done for and was going to have to step down as leader anyway, or perhaps he was just angry and frustrated enough to let his real feelings show. He launched into a blistering tirade where he accused immigrants of not being real Quebecois and it was their fault that the referendum had been lost. If it hadn't been for foreigners living amongst us we would have won the referendum.

No amount of damage control or apologies could save Mr. Parizeau from a well-deserved trip to the scrap heap, but the Parti Quebecois managed to hang on and run one more sovereignty referendum that again lost by the smallest of margins. According to exit polls it was obvious that the majority of immigrants voted against the initiative. When asked most of them admitted to some fear about how they would be treated in a sovereign Quebec.

Of course those running the pro-federalist campaign had played on those fears in their efforts to ensure that the referendum was defeated. What was significant was that it was the first time this had even been an issue in a referendum.

When the Parti Quebecois went down to defeat in the provincial election that followed the referendum, the immigrant vote, which is mainly confined to Montreal the largest city in the province, went predominately to the new Liberal government. But as so much of Montreal already would have voted that way, it was not seen to be a sign of anything significant. Besides, all across Canada the Liberal party traditionally receives the immigrant vote.

With the Liberal Party now seemingly safely ensconced in power, doing the tricky balancing act of keeping both nationalists and federalists within the mainstream of the province happy, the whole ethnic issue looked to have faded away. That is until yesterday when Mario Dumont, the leader of the conservative provincial political party l'Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) released a letter warning about the dangers of bending over backwards to accommodate minorities.

In the letter he says that Quebec must take measures to protect its national identity and the "values that are invaluable" (Dumont's word in quotes not mine, who else but a politician would say values that are invaluable with a straight face?). Of course he makes no mention of what those values might be or how immigrants pose any sort of threat to them. But that's not the point; the point is to whip up mistrust and hatred against those who are to blame for our troubles.

In the letter he says that Quebec needs its own constitution that would define what compromises should be made to minority ethnic and religious groups. It is his contention that recent allowances granted to various minorities present a threat to what he terms "old-stock Quebecois". It's hard to imagine that anybody in this day and age would actually say things like that in public while holding political office. It sounds far too much like something out of Nazi Germany and their whole purity of blood obsession.

The ADQ are not a fringe party in Quebec provincial politics. They won't be forming a government at any time in the near future it's true, but they are a legitimate political party who win seats in the Quebec parliament. Their leader wouldn't say something like that without believing there is some measure of support for it.

When you think about it I guess it's not that much different from what any conservative politician says about family values. But they aren't usually talking about creating a constitution that will outline restrictions to be placed on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. That sounds a little too much like Jim Crow laws and official segregation. One set of rights for the majority and another for the minorities is not a democracy.

Quebec nationalism as envisioned by its earliest founders in the 1950s and 60s was to make French Canadians equal partners in Canada. Somewhere along the line the concept of equality has been lost and been replaced with the notion of separate and better.

Calling depriving people of rights, protecting your own rights, doesn't make it any less reprehensible an action. For all our sakes lets hope that Quebec nationalists aren't serious about going down that road.

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