The big story these days in the Quebec media and political world is the newly-proposed Charte de la laïcité, or secular charter of values. The charter would forbid the wearing or display of “religious symbols” in public buildings, including any government office, hospital, or school. This is allegedly done in the name of the separation of church and state, though no one’s ever adequately explained to me how what one wears affects whether or not one will support religiously motivated laws, or try to pass off religious doctrine as education.
In fact, the only thing this charter seems certain to do is make life more difficult for people whose religion and culture require certain forms of dress – most prominently Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs, and notably not the majority of Christians. As a result, this law does not unify people under a common umbrella of secularism, but in fact targets many religious people of colour and Jewish people for harassment, disciplinary sanctions, or difficult choices between employment, culture, and faith.
It can be tempting to see laws like this as a Quebecois problem, to point to Law 101 and the new charter as unique issues with the Parti Québecois and leave it at that. The national media has treated this as a provincial issue – one that might display a fundamental incompatibility of the Quebecois mindset with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But nationalism based on fear, hate, and exclusion is not unique to Quebec. Some have called the Charter “Putinesque” in reference to queer- and transphobic laws in Russia, highlighted by the coming winter Olympics in Sochi. Indeed, the laws against so-called “homosexual propaganda” have gotten attention recently, but Russia’s intolerance began with viciously anti-immigrant policies reaching back decades.
Across Europe, nationalist movements based on xenophobia and a myth of racial purity are gaining strength. Earlier this summer, the English Defence League organized large demonstrations across England on an anti-Muslim agenda, with an exclusionary ideal of Englishness. Even more frightening is the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece, which now holds seats in Parliament, controls large elements of the police force, and is known to support armed attacks on immigrants as well as queer and trans* people, Roma, and other social “deviants.” It is not simply the presence and power of extremists that should worry us, but the ease with which these attitudes make their way into the mainstream.
Closer to home, a recent poll by Forum Research found that 42 per cent of Canadians agree with the proposed charter. Policy in Ottawa already reflects this attitude, with increasingly harsh bills attacking the rights of refugee claimants. The structure of Canadian immigration is shifting from one in which most immigrants had a chance at citizenship to one where immigrants are left in precarious, temporary situations with barely any rights.
This is a global trend. In times of economic crisis, people’s frustration and anger can easily be turned on convenient scapegoats rather than the true destroyers of our economy in high-powered, white collar positions. Identification based on whiteness and “nativeness” (co-opted from the actual native people of this land) has long been used to link white workers’ interests to those of the elite, rather than to those of their fellow workers of colour. But we know where this path can lead: not to economic success, but to the cruelties of the gulag and concentration camp. Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who spent much of her career trying to understand the origins of totalitarianism, points to the lack of critical thinking and debate as part of the route to accepting and perpetrating atrocities.
We must resist attempts to define “normal” or “worthy of rights” by skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. We must find ways to assert our differences without allowing them to mark some as subhuman. And where those attitudes are found – in our legislatures, our classrooms, our homes, and our streets – we must resist them, cutting them out like a cancer before they grow and metastasize.
Mona Luxion is a Ph.D student in the School of Urban Planning. They can be reached at email@example.com.