Allow me to begin by apologizing for writing in English. (This letter is now available in a French translation at HuffPost Québec.) I know that you speak and read English very well and though I am a fluent speaker of French, I have lost some of my fluency in the written language after spending eight years in an entirely English-speaking professional and academic environment. I write to you in English because I can best express myself on the subject of an extremely complex issue in my first language. Please feel free to respond in French.
I am un Québécois errant. I left Québec 2005 to pursue my doctorate in history, and I am now teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Like Québécois scholars who have trod this path before me, such as Daniel Turp and Jacques Parizeau, I feel a constant and deep longing for ma patrie. It is my greatest desire to someday return home.
My family has deep roots in Québec. My grandfather arrived as an immigrant from Central Europe in 1912. In his early days in Montréal, he worked clearing snow from the street of Sainte-Cunegonde Ward in Saint-Henri. Later, he moved to his family to the old Jewish neighbourhood in the Plateau Mont-Royal, where he worked in the garment industry and managed a shop for many years.
My father, an idealist, social activist and, like you, a social worker grew up in the Plateau’s sea of languages and cultures. He attended Bancroft school on St-Urbain and served, along with his brothers and sister in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The journal he kept as a prisoner of war is full of his dreams of home; of Fletcher’s Field, the streetcar line that ran past his family’s flat on Ave. du Parc, and of the coconut cream pie at Laurier BBQ.
He met René Lévesque after the war, encountering him many times at the Binerie Mont-Royal. I can’t presume that they were ever friends – apart from a shared love of pâté chinois and fèves au lard, they traveled in different social circles – but my father knew M. Lévesque well enough to have developed a deep respect for the man’s humanity and genius. My father read Option Québec in its first edition; he was not a sovereignist but he was devoted to Québec and, when so many of his friends and colleagues raced along the 401 to points west in 1976, he was utterly committed to stay.
I remember the night of 15 November 1976 very well. It was my younger sister’s birthday, but all we heard on the radio and television were dire predictions of the apocalypse. My father turned the television from CFCF to a French channel – I can’t remember which – in disgust. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It is the start of something new. We don’t know what that will be, but this is our home. We are Québécois. We are going to stay, whatever happens.”
I learned to love Québec through my father, from the bagel bakery on St-Viateur, to the hills of the Laurentians, to the fjords of the Saguenay, to the walls of Québec. In 1980, I pleaded with my classmates in the schoolyard – many of whom wore the “Mon non est Québécois” buttons that their parents had given them – to consider the possibility that maybe “Oui” would not be such a bad option after all.
When I left Québec eight years ago, I vowed that I would return, and that my exile would be temporary. It is a vow that I intend to keep. I cannot express how much I love ma patrie, how much I miss its rhythms, sounds, sights and smells. It is a void that my all-too-infrequent visits home can never adequately fill. Quebec is, and will always be my home, whether or not it is under the Canadian flag.
This is why I am writing to you now. I have read the news about the proposed Charte des valeurs québécoises with great dismay. I believe that you are a very reasonable, well-meaning person, Mme. Marois, and I don’t doubt that you are motivated by the best-possible intentions. The Québec that emerged from la révolution tranquille shorn of ecclesiastical domination has historically been, at its best, a society of unparalleled openness – a model of secular tolerance. I can well understand your desire to enshrine these principles in law.
Yet the means and the motive are mismatched. Others have indicated, in recent days, the deep contradictions between your stated intent and the instrument of the Charter. It has been noted that what constitutes an “‘overt and conspicuous’ religious symbol” is contingent on who displays it. A headscarf is only a hijab when it is worn by a religious Muslim woman, a yarmulke is simply a beanie on the head of a non-Jew. To prohibit people providing government services – in hospitals, schools and public agencies – from wearing them is to presume to look into their minds and souls.
Rather than providing for an environment of religious neutrality, the Charter seeks to regulate belief. It says that a non-Muslim woman may wear a headscarf when she is having a bad hair day, but it prohibits an observant Muslim from wearing one at all. It insists that religious Jews in public employment go bare-headed at all times, unlike their non-Jewish colleagues, since the essence of a yarmulke is not its shape but its function.
Indeed, not all “‘overt and conspicuous’ religious symbols” are garments. The “examples” that your government has provided are only a few of the ways that people display their faith. A Chasidic Jew’s beard and payot and a Sikh man’s uncut hair are as significant and conspicuous symbols of their faith as any head covering. Though not explicitly prohibited by the Charter, they are not excluded, either. Will Jewish, Sikh and Muslim public employees be forced to visit the barber to hold onto their jobs?
In seeking to provide “religious neutrality,” your government’s proposals display ambitions to police the souls of Québec’s citizens and inscribe its power on their very bodies. This, as Hannah Arendt noted more than sixty years ago, is the essence of totalitarianism.
Indeed, it is an axiom of both the Common and Civil Law that, for a law to be just it must apply equally and without discrimination. Yet the secularism you seek to impose on Québec is fundamentally unequal and discriminatory. It is therefore unjust.
It is, in fact, a profoundly Christian secularism. I understand that you don’t see it that way, but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. The very values that you hope to enshrine – freedom, personal autonomy, democracy as it emerged in Christian Europe – have a history. They are embedded in a religious genealogy. Even the term laïque, which you seem to favour, was coined to describe the organization of the medieval Catholic Chuch.
I don’t believe that either you, nor the majority of your colleagues in the government of Québec, are able to recognize this. It is the conceit of colonialism that the beliefs and values of the powerful and dominant are somehow universal. It was this belief that sustained the sad legacy of the “White Man’s Burden.” White, Christian Europeans were not imposing their parochial values and practices on the people they colonized in Africa, Asia, the Americas – yes, and in Québec – or, at least that is what they told themselves. No, they were “raising them up” to enlightenment and civilization.
I am not a believer. I was raised in a secular Jewish home. Yet I have always been aware that, in both subtle and conspicuous ways, I am an outsider to secular Québec. Christianity – Roman Catholic Christianity – is inscribed in both the temporal rhythms and topology of ma patrie. It is omnipresent and unavoidable.
Even when they are available on Saturday, government services are closed on Sundays. The word “dimanche,” in fact, derives from the Latin dies Dominica – the Lord’s day. School, government and businesses officially close for the Christian holidays of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday, but not for Yom Kippur or Eid. Our national holiday is celebrated on 24 June because St-Jean Baptise is the Catholic Patron Saint of the Québécois. Indeed, one cannot walk a block anywhere in any town or city in Québec without encountering a Saint-Louis, Saint-Hubert or Sainte-Catherine. The flag flying over government buildings conspicuously displays both a Christian cross and the fleur-de-lis – a symbol of the Holy Trinity and of the Christian God’s authority, as wielded by the French monarchy and its successors.
To prohibit the display of religious symbols by citizens in public employment while the government of Québec displays them on its letterhead, in the Assemblée nationale, on Sureté de Québec cruisers – the physical embodiment of state power – and our society displays it in its geography and calendar, is not to preserve neutrality but privilege.
You must know that the Charter will be challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada, and that it will likely be struck down… and as I write this I begin to wonder whether you are not, in fact, a reasonable, well-meaning person but a calculating opportunist. As I read what I have written, I find that I must conclude that you are not the heir of René Lévesque – a true Québec patriot and a man of unparalleled decency – but of Adrien Arcand and Abbé Groulx: cynical populist demagogues who mined the insecurities of what they believed was a parochial and simple-minded population in their quest for power.
My people – the people of Québec – are decent, generous, open-minded people. I have known Québécois from New Carlisle to Hull, from Chicoutimi to Rivière du Loup. They are my friends, my neighbours, my colleagues, my brothers and sisters. They recognize better than anyone that Québec is the child of many parents – Abenaki, Cree, Mohawk, Normand, Breton, Picard, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Jewish, Arab, Indian, Vietnamese and, yes, English. They know that this, more than anything, is what makes our société distincte so distinct, so unique, so special.
We are a people of trust. We believe in each other and we trust that our leaders act for the common good. That is what defines our democracy and our political culture. That is why we vote. That is why when we see the cross and fleur-de-lis flying from a flagpole, we feel the warmth of community and a surge of pride, whatever our religious beliefs and differences. Lévesque knew this. His Québec, whether it was to be sovereign or part of Canada, was a society of inclusion. It was a culture of nous ensemble, without quibbling over who constituted nous.
I can’t help but suspect your motives, Mme. Marois. It seems that you are trying to turn nous inside-out by cynically using the trust that we have in our leaders against us. The Charter seems to be an effort to convince the majority of Québécois who do not live in Montréal or Québec, where cultural and religious diversity is the quiet background to our daily lives, that they have something to fear from those who are different. You seem to be telling them that they have special privileges and that the only way to preserve them is to deny the rights of others. It seems to be a set-up, a cheap kayfabe designed to fail in order to mobilize support for your narrow ambitions.
It appears that you believe that you can play the people of Québec like a violin; that you have so much contempt for us that you can manipulate us at the basest level. I hope I am wrong about you but, if I am not, I know that you are wrong about us.