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McGill and the Charter

The implications of Bill 60 for the campus environment

Correction appended March 25, 2014

Quebec has 17 universities that attract students from Quebec, other Canadian provinces, and other countries. Out of these universities, 14 are in the city of Montreal, the largest city in the province. With a rich history, a relatively strong arts scene, and of course an expansive nightlife, Montreal is a perfect city for students coming to study at McGill, Concordia, or any of Montreal’s universities. Quebec offers more than it seems at first sight, and not all of it is positive. Even with a lot of cultural diversity and a large migrant population, Quebec’s latent xenophobia is becoming stronger.

If passed, the Charter of Quebec Values, or Bill 60, would institutionalize intolerance, and increase feelings of fear and of being unsafe for many groups on campus. According to Kira Page, external coordinator at the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill, the Charter, as well as the proposed changes to already-existing language laws, is already having effects on people of colour and migrant communities in Quebec. As an example, a survey conducted by Geneviève Pinard Prévost at the Université de Sherbrooke showed that “88 per cent of Muslim women said they no longer feel safe leaving their homes.” Pinard Prévost’s sample size of 388 might be small, but such a high ratio can nevertheless not be ignored. Pinard Prévost said herself that, “It may not look like a lot of women in the total of Muslim women in Quebec, but it’s a lot of women who live with this kind of problem in the province.”

Beyond making communities and individuals feel unsafe, Page states that Bill 60 would create an access barrier to employment for many people. Ellen Aitken, Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, firmly believes that Bill 60 would affect faculty members, in that they would “in a sense, be forced to hide part of their identity.” Aitken continues, “It would create an environment in which the fullness of who we are as human beings, as scholars, and as social beings interacting with one another could not be expressed fully, and I think that is a very chilling environment in which to learn.”

Page explains that in Quebec, “various iterations of a political and social need for things like cultural protection, sovereignty, or the self-determination of francophone communities have often turned into a xenophobic, anti-immigrant politic that is deeply white supremacist, colonial, and racist.” No matter its original intention, Bill 60 is now used as one of Quebec’s many soldiers of xenophobia. While traditionally defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as an “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries,” xenophobia can be further defined to include a dislike or fear of other cultures, languages, and religions.

At McGill’s tri-annual debriefing in December, Suzanne Fortier stated that Bill 60 is already affecting McGill’s recruitment of faculty and students, with certain faculty members already considering leaving. Outside the limits of McGill, Aitken says that Bill 60 and Quebec’s xenophobia would “be a real disincentive for anyone applying from outside. It would probably even be a real disincentive for some Quebecers coming to McGill.”

“It would create an environment in which the fullness of who we are as human beings, as scholars, and as social beings interacting with one another could not be expressed fully, and I think that is a very chilling environment in which to learn.”

In January 2014, McGill submitted a brief to the National Assembly commission working on Bill 60, in which it made clear that it would have a strong detrimental effect on the university’s environment, and would destroy what a university is and should be. The brief states that a university is “an environment that brings them [the students] face to face with a reality that goes beyond the experience they have had until now, and helps them to develop their judgement and critical thinking.” It is very clearly implied that Bill 60 would hinder and negatively affect this environment. As well, the brief says that Bill 60, if implemented, would fundamentally alter the nature of the university as an institution, as “the institutional autonomy of a university is defined as the ability to manage its mission according to its own rules of governance, in complete freedom and without interference from any third party, including the government.”

Taking Aitken’s position of Bill 60 affecting McGill’s faculty, this same brief clearly states that Bill 60 would have a negative effect on the student population itself, as “McGill hires nearly 3,500 of its students on teaching contracts in their disciplines (as lecturers or teaching assistants), to supervise examinations, work in the University libraries or bookstore, do office work that is partly subsidized by the central budget, fill research assistant positions, or serve as floor monitors in the student residences.”

Beyond institutionalized bills such as Bill 60, xenophobia is clearly present in language issues. In 1977, Quebec’s National Assembly passed a bill called the Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101, which has been controversial even amongst Quebec residents. Very broadly, this Charter is meant to define the role of the French language in the province, and the accompanying language rights. While Bill 101’s many articles all serve to strengthen the French language, they can have negative aspects, especially on some anglophone populations. After the implementation of the Bill, Quebec experienced a large emigration of these populations, leading to the closing of many anglophone schools.

Under Bill 14, businesses that serve the public would have needed to communicate in French with their customers. Furthermore, buisnesses with 26 to 49 regular employees would have had to make French the language of the workspace. Such rules make it much more difficult for immigrants in Quebec to create and run a business and make a living if their French language skills do not meet the required standard.

All of these aspects of present-day Quebec do not paint a very attractive portrait of the province, a fact simply exacerbated by certain components of next month’s electoral platforms. With so many universities, it would be unwise for Quebec to close the door, or at least make the door very hard to open, to international students because of its cultural policies and behaviour.

In an earlier version of the article, The Daily incorrectly stated that, according to Kira Page, the Charter would have a negative effect on Quebec’s international image. In fact, Page said that the Charter has negative effects on people of colour and migrant communities in Quebec. The Daily regrets the error.