Saturday, January 11, 2014

Quebec and the NYT

Which is becoming more of a joke? The Parti Quebecois or the editorial page of the New York Times?  It might be a tie since the PQ got to have an op-ed in the NYT yesterday.

Jean-François Lisée, who is the key PQ official in the Charter of Values debate, wrote the op-ed that defends the Charter of Values, a.k.a. the Charter of Pandering to Xenophobes.  Because the NYT gets more circulation than the usual PQ missive, let me take a look at the article piece by piece.

First, the title: Quebec's Latest Stand.  Or is it meant to be last stand?  It could be playing to both and also might not be in the control of the author.  But when I first saw the title, I read it as Last, not Latest.  But the Latest makes sense--that PQ is fighting an imaginary battle, so why not call it a Latest Stand.

Lisée positions himself as being in the European mainstream as European leaders have grown skeptical of multiculturalism.  That might play in Europe, but I am not sure that publishing a piece in the NYT on "how intolerance is wonderfully European, so the PQ is legit" makes a lot of sense.  NYT readers are not huge fans of the growing xenophobia in Europe.  Whatever.  Anyhow, the point is to "break sharply with Canada's broader multicultural ethos."  Yep, we get that.  Not sure why that is a good thing.  But let's see.

The next para goes into how Quebec is so wonderful with its linguistic diversity in Montreal (which the PQ has been desperate to eradicate), distinctive religious history (where the bitterness towards the Catholic Church has led to the use of "Church words" as curse words), and so on.  He goes on to argue that Quebec's hostility to multiculturalism goes way back to 1982 as part of the reason why the repatriation of the constitution was messy and not so beloved in Quebec.  

Anyhow, Lisée finally gets to the Charter of Values, arguing that it affirms the secular nature of the government as it "denies religious requests for accommodations of dress in public sector employment."  He blames the controversy as stuff that happens when "Quebec veers from the Canadian path" rather than the passage of law that would discriminate against religious minorities and is not solving an actual problem.  Anyone who thinks that the Quebec government is not secular because a few people at the equivalent of the Dept of Motor Vehicles are wearing hijabs or because a few doctors are wearing turbans need more than just less religious symbols, they need serious remedial education.  Indeed, one of the reasons why this bill is so very problematic is how much of the economy in Quebec is owned by the province: hospitals, doctor's offices, universities and the like in addition to the stuff that we normally consider--the aforementioned DMV, the tax folks, and so on.  

The piece argues that this is natural extension of the previous secularization moves.  The funny thing is that this is part of a larger PQ problem--what happens when it wins a battle?  It has to keep fighting even if the victory means that there is actually no longer a grievance.   Quebec wins the battle to have French predominate in Quebec, which takes a lot of the justification out of separation, so the PQ has to find other reasons to exist and to gain votes.  Quebec has a secular society and a secular government (except for the big cross in the National Assembly), but since it is a major employer and Quebec's diversity means that some of those employed by Quebec are religious minorities, we need to figure out ways to alienate them.  I mean, to get them to drop their religious beliefs so that they can be just like the rest of Quebec's secular society.

The next paragraph justifies the Islamophobia that is baked into the Charter of Values as defense of women's rights.  This is a complex issue, which means that we need a more subtle, sensitive approach than banning all woman who are devout Muslims from working for the government.  Indeed, is this going to do such women any favors?  Not sure, but the guess is probably no.

Referring to the laws in France may make sense to some, but any laws that are a century old that deal with religion and religious minorities in Europe may not be such a great basis of legitimacy.

The real motivation is revealed at the end--that the Charter of Values is an effort to get the Canadian government (via the Supreme Court) to strike it down, leading to more motivation in Quebec to secede.   Given that the sovereignty movement is on its heels right now, that any referendum would lose today, PQ folks have been talking for some time about passing a series of laws that would antagonize Canada, provoke reactions and that would make Quebeckers more interested in independence.  Ok, to be fair to the PQ, there is another motivation--to divide the CAQ, a third party whose rise has made it very hard for the PQ to gain a majority of seats in the Quebec assembly.  

Andrew Coyne had a good piece this morning comparing the Charter of Values to the York University controversy.  In both cases, the desire to create a single set of rules--to either accommodate everything or accommodate nothing--is a good way to remove responsibility from officials--no decision-making is required.  But, just as Dave and I find in our book, discretion is a fundamental part of governance--those administering the rules need to have the flexibility to accommodate that which is reasonable and not accommodate that which is not reasonable.

Indeed, the whole concept of reasonable accommodation is about being reasonable, right?  The Charter of Values is unreasonable.  There is no problem--there are not heaps of complaints about doctors wearing turbans or teachers wearing hijabs.  But the Charter panders well to those who fear those who are different.  It may be solving some political problems for the PQ.  But it is not a logical effort to fix a real problem.

I am still left with the same question that I had at the outset: why did the NYT publish this drivel?

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