Mme Marois, M Drainville et al.:

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a secular state. I remember those bad old days you’ve been talking about to justify this new “Charter of Values.”

As an immigrant to Quebec at the age of six, I *wanted* to become part of Quebec society. The problem was, the Quebec society of the day wouldn’t let me. As a Jew, I was barred from the system that educated you. The Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal had no choice but to take me and educate me in English. Nothing stopped people from shouting “dirty Jew” or “sale juif” in their preferred language, so even though my family was not religious and showed no outward display of our culture of origin, I grew up hearing those epithets all too often and keeping the hurt to myself.

Like most of my generation of so-called “English” (most of whom have not one drop of English blood, by the way), I faced barriers to learning French. None of my elementary school teachers spoke it well enough to teach it properly. As non-affluent immigrants, my family lived in one of the poorer neighbourhoods: few of the Quebec elite of either language ever came there, let alone lived amongst us. The few longtime Canadians still in the area rather despised us for being newcomers and different. Being unwelcome at most public institutions, we tended to ghettoize ourselves, too.

In other words, the so-called “two solitudes” had already become a misnomer. By the 1950s, Quebec society was already multi-cultural. The first Jews came here in the 1700s. By the 1800s, most of the “English” were not members of the Anglo elite but the descendents of the thousands of displaced Irish and Scots who could no longer feed themselves in their native land, and loved the English no more than the habitants did.

Add in successive waves of immigration from Germany, Greece and Italy, and top them off with the Hungarians who fled here after World War II and again after 1956. Novelist Brian Moore had a telling line in _The Luck of Ginger Coffey_ of that era which I’m quoting from memory “In Montreal you need to be bilingual–Hungarian and German.” By the mid-1960s when we had moved to the “north end” and I travelled downtown by bus every day, it was a rare day when you couldn’t hear a dozen languages in the 80 bus down Park Avenue: all of those mentioned, plus Polish, Russian, Vietnamese, Khmer, Hindi and others. Most of those workers dressed “normally” but some saris and cheongsams and shalwar kameez among them were interesting, not offensive.

Everyone knew people had different religions: nobody cared much about it except the Christians. To them, it mattered: people who did not believe as they did would go to Hell if they were not converted. It was confusing to the rest of us. The Catholics wanted us to convert but shut us out of their schools and institutions. The Protestants were mostly less dogmatic about it but made Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu kids sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and such every morning and punished us if we wouldn’t. One lot wore crucifixes and the others plain crosses, and there seemed to be twenty different flavours of Christianity. None of them were much like what the Jewish Jesus preached according to the New Testament I read for clues. He seemed to speak for the more open and liberal side of Judaism, and the need for people to be good to one another rather than punish them for making mistakes, and to stand up for the freedom to live in peace.

Some of his followers, not so much. They were almost as prejudiced against one another as they were against us. Baptists despised Presbyterians and vice versa. White Christians didn’t want black Christians in their churches. The nuns and priests were often cruel to their students, all the while maintaining their religion was one of kindness. They tried to convince children they would burn in Hell forever for even the tiniest interest in sex. They insisted women should tolerate any amount of physical abuse from their husbands, and should keep bearing children when in danger of dying of it, let alone past their ability to feed them. And the curés took advantage of the widespread ignorance to threaten people with eternal punishment if they did not vote for the corrupt, fascistic government that kept them in poverty.

To me, the “Quiet Revolution” seemed long overdue. Far too many Québecois kids of my generation lived in poverty, with poor diet, rotting teeth and irresistible pressure to quit school at sixteen (if not sooner) to help their families survive. Too many of the boys thought their first arrest was proof of manhood. Too many copies of Allo Police had pictures of women who had bled to death in alleys from inept illegal abortions. Too many thugs surrounded polling stations. Too many writers had their papers seized and too many union organizers were harrassed for trying to improve disgraceful working conditions. Those were not Quebec values: they were cruelties inflicted by the collusion of church and state to keep a people in subjection, and they had to be stopped.

Fortunately, they were. People woke up to the reality that they could change things. A generation of intellectuals and reformers showed the way. The corrupt regime was turfed out and replaced with politicians who cared about more than money and power. Public education became a priority and the stranglehold of the church on daily life was broken. Electricity became a public good, used to fund a thrust into the 20th century. Young people took to the streets en masse when anyone tried to turn the clock back. Asking questions stopped being a “sin” and became the way to learn. It was time to replace “Je me souviens (old grievances)” with “Maitres chez nous (for our future)” and build a better and fairer society.

Like many young “Anglos” of the time, I felt part of the new Quebec. Unlike the English Canadian establishment, we were glad to learn French and participate in the new Quebec where social solidarity mattered. We didn’t head down the 401 in fear or anger at the change: we were studying and working alongside our French-speaking neighbours and had no desire to leave. In fact, many of us were just as inspired by René Lévesque, Pauline Julien, Robert Charlebois and the rest to dream of a Québec nation come into its own and freed from the old domination of a financial elite whose interests opposed our desire for democracy and equality.

For some decades, I could take pride in what Québec had accomplished and continue to dream. Where other places looked on visible minorities as a problem, we welcomed them and helped them get settled. We put a good education within everyone’s reach. Good health care was accessible in our communities, not just in the hospitals. Public health and safety, fair labour laws and the environment were priorities. Even without separation, the French-speaking majority had a voice in how they wanted to be governed and the power to show its “French face” to the world. Whether most anglophones understood it or not, I could support the PQ and the Bloc against “politics as usual” in the pockets of the well-heeled.

But Mme Marois, the PQ you lead is no longer the party of Lévesque and your own hypocrisy is showing. The pride I once felt that your party was committed to equality and social solidarity has been eroded, gradually at first but quickly and completely in the year since the last election. The promises you made and the sentiments you expressed during the Printemps Erable evaporated as soon as the PQ gained power. Your government proceeded to disavow the tuition freeze, attack the poor and defenceless with bizarre “welfare reform,” and foment fear and hatred of the very minorities who help build the open, secular and democratic Québec.

Where the Québec Charter of Rights guarantees freedom of religion (as well as freedom from it) and social equality, you propose to override it–even at the cost of depriving our health system, educational institutions and daycares of much-needed, well-integrated and excellent staff, and driving them out of the province to find work elsewhere. One excuse is that the “reasonable accommodations” of allowing hijabs and turbans and kipas are “excessive” and some people (namely bigots) are offended when people dress a bit differently due to religious belief or might ask for a day off on Yom Kippur or Eid.

Does equality between men and women really demand that public service discriminate against devout Jewish and Sikh men and devout Muslim women? Somehow that doesn’t look very equal to me. No woman working in any public job is wearing a burqa; the few (perhaps a dozen on the island of Montreal?) who do wear one would not work in public among men anyway.

None of the people whose faith requires constant evangelizing are doing it in civil service jobs, either. Nurses, doctors, teachers and even the workers at government offices have real jobs to do and no desire to forcibly convert those who use their services. Nobody of normal intelligence would be surprised that some people in Quebec are not Catholics or Protestants, whose crosses are deemed acceptable as long as they are discreet or loom large in public buildings.

It seems clear to me part of our problem here is (no insult intended) plain Christian ignorance–that is, the assumption that since the wearing of cross is purely optional to Christians, the religious garb of all other faiths is equally optional. It isn’t.

The very religious Jew wears a kipa, the committed Sikh wears his turban and the devout Muslim woman wears her head-covering because their respective sects believe that is what God has commanded. Other people of the same faiths do not do so is because they belong to less-restrictive sects or don’t practice their religions at all. Those others may seem better assimilated to mainstream Quebec culture but that’s not why they discarded those head-coverings.

The minorities who do wear their head-coverings believing it is God’s command cannot simply set them aside like any other garment. Devout Jews, Sikhs and Muslims in Quebec are often assimilated enough to wear western clothing with their kipas or turbans or hijabs, but you’re demanding that they go against what they believe is God’s will. That is a step too far–a step toward denying their freedom of religion, even if only during working hours. They would sooner die than go against God’s command, even temporarily. They would certainly choose their faith over a government paycheque, or any paycheque. And they would certainly flee any country which made their religious expression a crime. In fact, that is how we got many of these people–Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and others including Christians forced to leave their countries of religious repression for freedom to practice their faiths in tolerant, secular Quebec.

Nobody but the very ignorant few find the signs of ethnic or cultural difference offensive. Québec is not Hérouxville, as can easily be seen by the public’s reaction to their foolishness. Since most Québecois are not ignoramuses, I have to wonder if the ignoramus vote is so much more important than the votes of the larger Quebec public. What is being gained by alienating the support of thousands of the very newcomers and Anglos your party encouraged to make common cause for decades? Social peace without religious conflicts we already had.

It seems absurd to claim your goal is unity when what you propose is dividing your own supporters. A secular state respects individual human rights. Only a fascist state marginalizes its minorities, and it’s hard to believe those who made the Quiet Revolution or benefitted from it want a fascist Québec. That our public institutions are already secular goes without saying. Nobody is suggesting we give their governance to religious authorities. But the PQ and Bloc are going further than suggesting discrimination: they are ostracizing not only the most religious among us from public roles supposed to be open to anyone qualified, but anyone who believes in the religious freedom guaranteed by the Quebec Charter and promoted for decades as part of our open society.

The rather cynical answer is all I can think of: that some of the management of the civil service (which is still over 90% “vieille souche” stock, many denying the admixture of “Anglo” and “Allo” and indigenous blood in their ancestry) is offended by the incursion of minorities into their domains. Their issue isn’t religion as such: it’s the inconvenience of seeing that Québec is what it set out to be in the 1960s–a society where people of all kinds, with various beliefs and customs, can live in peace and receive the tolerance of their fellow-citizens and impartial respect for their human rights. To them, it seems to me, it’s *inconvenient* when a worker wants to be absent on a non-Christian religious holiday and *untidy* when some people want to wear garments that reflect different cultural roots.

If there is a need for a “secular charter” at all–of which I am not convinced by any of the arguments I’ve heard for it thus far–there is certainly none for the proposal in its present form. By all means, enshrine the principle that our public institutions are secular and not to be ruled by any religion, and the principle that men and women are equal here regardless of what religious extremists may say. But while you do it, please also enshrine the principle that people of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual preferences, ages or political views are entitled to equal consideration for employment–in public service and everywhere–in a secular state, given equal qualifications and sanity in their dealings with the rest of the human race.

The Bloc Québecois, which I voted for in several elections, lost my vote by its stupid intolerance of free expression in expelling a fine woman MP for speaking up against intolerance. You are doing likewise to many who supported your party, whether they were devout separatists or not. Until now, I could not conceive of ever leaving Quebec but now that it’s as impossible for me to vote for you as to vote for the PLQ or CAQ, I am thinking my society has left me.

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