Culture  Selective secularism

The new Parti Québécois (PQ) minority government, elected on Tuesday and led by Pauline Marois, has a specific vision for the development of culture in Quebec. Canadian media have frequently accused the Premier of engaging in “identity politics,” or ethnically-charged populism. Marois has indeed led a campaign that appealed almost exclusively to the more nationalist sentiments of Quebecois voters. Although she won the election with a minority government, due to the rise of new parties, Marois received a lower percentage of the vote than she did in the 2008 election, which went to Jean Charest and the Liberal Party.

According to the PQ platform, the party envisions a Quebec that is defined both by the cultural dominance of the French language, and a tradition of strong secularism. To the effect of the latter, the PQ announced the drafting of a “Charter of Secularism” in mid-August. Among other provisions, Marois said, the Charter will ensure that no religious symbols – including clothing such as a chador or a Jewish kippah – can be worn by employees of public institutions. The only exception the PQ will permit is an unobtrusive crucifix, which the PQ claims that, though it violates the tradition of secularism, is part of the history of Quebec.

Unlike the rest of Quebec, Montreal is a profoundly multicultural place. Over 15 per cent of the city’s population is from a religious background other than Christianity. Here, no one bats an eyelid at a kippah, turban, or hijab aboard a city bus. Moreover, the definition of “public employee” is dangerously broad. The public sector forms a larger proportion of the Quebec economy than exists in most other provinces. Everyone from bus drivers, to employees of Hydro-Québec, to doctors are employed by the state to provide services to citizens.

Another plank in the PQ platform has been to stiffen the province’s language law, Bill 101. Currently, Bill 101 prohibits signage in English (unless French is provided a dominant position on the same sign), and mandates that francophones and allophones (those who have a mother tongue other than French or English) attend school in French. The PQ intends to extend Bill 101 so that English CEGEPs – often the first place that immigrants and French students can learn in English, if they so choose – are also off-limits to francophones and allophones.

Although Marois chose to hold her post-election speech in Montreal, the Parti Québécois won only six of the island’s 28 ridings. The result reflects a growing divide between the city’s increasingly multicultural nature and the demographic continuity of the rest of the province. Quebecois-focused identity politics hold little appeal in most of the city. However, one of the most common reasons stated for strengthening the provisions of Bill 101 is the necessity of francisation in Montreal. Since 2006, the proportion of francophones on the island has been less than 50 per cent, and by most accounts continues to decline. Much of this is due to the emigration of francophones from Montreal proper to its off-island suburbs. In many of these satellite cities, francophones make up over 90 per cent of the population.

The reasons for this suburban migration are not entirely clear, but are almost assuredly comprised of a mix of factors, and not merely a flight into ethnic isolation. Economic factors such as high taxes, the poor quality of infrastructure, and traffic are reasons for suburban migration across North America. Citing the flight of francophones from Montreal as a reason to strengthen already-strict language legislation is an excuse to carry out an agenda that is ultimately hostile to the city’s mix of cultures.

Whether the Parti Québécois succeeds in passing much of its cultural agenda remains to be seen. While the concerns of encroachment of anglo-Canadian and global English-language on the Quebecois culture are legitimate, it would be unfortunate to harm Montreal’s prospects, both as an international city of culture and as an attractive place for immigrants, by further restricting its citizens’ freedoms.