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EDITORIAL: Intolerance leading to Quebec’s decline (Dec. 2017)

December 15th, 2017 · No Comments

In 1995, Quebec sought independence from Canada through a referendum, the second time since confederation. It failed by the narrowest of margins — 54,288 votes. The leader of the independence movement, the late Parti Québécois leader and premier Jacques Parizeau, upon learning the news of defeat gave a revealing and memorable speech in which he said “Battu par l’argent et le vote ethnique” (we were beat by money and the ethnic vote).

Parizeau was graceless in defeat and fanned the embers of resentment of non-Francophones in Quebec. The intolerance of the “other” evident then is a fire that still burns today over 20 years later. In October, the National Assembly adopted Bill 62, which requires a person who delivers or receives public services to have their face uncovered. This was widely seen as an attack on the fundamental rights of the minority of Muslim women who wear the face-covering niqabs or burkas. In December, the same National Assembly voted unanimously to ban businesses from greeting customers with “Bonjour-hi”, which is a common greeting in Montreal. The “hi” part is now forbidden.

How sad and petty.

It rings of the 2013 Quebec investigation dubbed “Pastagate”, a notorious incident covered worldwide, after an inspector found that a menu at a Montreal Italian restaurant violated Quebec’s language law as it used the word “pasta” and ordered it removed.

It’s too early to tell how the ban on “bonjour-hi” will be received, but one thing is clear. It does not exactly signal openness or tolerance, and is more likely to invite ridicule.

Bill 62, less than two months old, has already started to unravel. On December 1, Quebec Superior Court Justice Babak Barin ordered a temporary stay on the provision of the law that prohibits citizens from receiving or giving public services with their faces covered. Barin ruled that Quebec cannot force people to uncover their faces until the province establishes clear guidelines under which someone can apply for a religious accommodation. When it enacted the law, the Quebec government said it would give until next summer to draft those guidelines.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association challenged the law on Charter grounds, but the judge did not wade into that debate. He found the act was half-baked: “It is not unreasonable to expect that a state religious neutrality law enacted by the government should apply in a well-thought-out and comprehensive manner, especially when the law in question has been in preparation for some time…. In the interim, noble as the ideology of state religious neutrality may be, the government must ensure that the law it is adopting for the public good is coherent and complete.”

Enacting incoherent legislation aimed to alienate religious minorities and telling citizens how they may and may not greet each other in the normal course of their lives removes the welcome mat from Quebec’s doorstep. It’s especially troubling given the province’s declining birth rates. That means Quebec, like other provinces, needs immigration to fuel a labour shortage and support an aging population increasingly dependent on health care.

Unlike other provinces, Quebec can’t seem to hold onto its new immigrants: a quarter of those who arrived in Quebec between 2004 and 2013 left for other provinces. Those that stay take much longer to integrate than immigrants to other provinces: consider the unemployment rate among immigrants in Quebec is 16.9 per cent, while in Ontario it is 5.5 per cent for the same group.

Quebec leads the country in progressive parental leave programs, subsidized day care, and affordable post-secondary education (all paid for by the rest of Canada through transfer payments), and despite this can’t seem to hold onto new immigrants. It’s the other mean-spirited policies that drive this demographic exodus.

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