Bill 195 - a landmark in the annals of narrow-mindedness

PQ's citizenship proposal impedes Montreal's ambition to be open to the world

Citoyenneté québécoise - Conjoncture de crise en vue

If any foreigners now visiting Montreal want to know how this city is taking (or not taking) its place in the world, they've come at an instructive moment. Two separate news stories in recent days provide a snapshot of the endless tug-of-war over the metropolitan region's future.
One news story is that city hall and the Quebec Liberal government have, with Ottawa's support, been trying to get the United Nations to move its headquarters to Montreal from New York. Montreal argues that the UN could save money by coming to the Bickerdike Pier area of the Old Port instead of spending $2 billion renovating its buildings along New York's East River.
Even if it does not succeed (and it probably won't), the initiative epitomizes Montreal's ambition to be open to the world.
This goal has a deep history. It's reflected in Expo 67, the 1976 Olympics, the World Trade Centre and other components of the Quartier International. You'll also see it in the successful efforts of all three levels of government to attract such international agencies as ICAO, IATA and Dick Pound's WADA.
The same outward-looking aspirations explain McGill's desire to raise its stature as a globally significant university and in the Universite de Montreal's drive to become one. It's what animates the Cirque du Soleil and some of the festivals. It's what inspires Francois Girard's presentation of the city as a sophisticated arts centre in his film The Red Violin.
But it's a vision that collides head-on with last week's other tell-tale event, the Parti Quebecois's tabling of a bill to create Quebec citizenship - Bill 195. It's a landmark in the annals of narrow-mindedness.
Political leaders sometimes say outrageous things in private or off the cuff, when they haven't had time to ponder their words. They duly "clarify" what they meant, and the news cycle moves on. However, when a political party states controversial ideas in draft legislation, those ideas possess solemnity. They come from not one person but many, and they've been weighed.
That's why, even though it has received support from no other party and thus will die without debate, Bill 195 is a valuable sample of the mindset that has held Montreal back for decades.
The bill would prevent newcomers to Quebec - including Canadian citizens from other provinces - from becoming citizens of the province unless they speak French. Such non-citizens would not be able to run in municipal, school or provincial elections, nor could they make political donations.
For a jurisdiction that is not a country, it is breathtakingly undemocratic and discriminatory. It typifies the siege-mentality nationalism that undermines the efforts of those who want to open up Montreal to the world.
Indeed, a little-noted aspect of the bill would muzzle dissent. People who arrive in Quebec after the bill became law would qualify for citizenship only if they swear "that I will be loyal to the people of Quebec, that I will faithfully observe the laws of Quebec." After a Yes vote in a referendum (which would reflect the will of "the people of Quebec"), such citizens would clearly have to shut up - ditto after a law declaring independence.
Promotional campaigns seeking to lure knowledge workers and investors to Montreal never mention this intellectual climate. That figures. But visitors to this city might be puzzled by another silence - the silence of Montreal's ostensible protectors.
Ordinarily, a mayor would denounce a political ideology that gives the city a backward image. Yet the current mayor, although a federalist and adherent of the open-to-the-world camp, heeds city hall tradition and is mum.
Most visitors would at least expect business leaders to educate the public on how the ideological climate keeps the city down. They don't. Many members of the Montreal Board of Trade are lawyers, accountants, engineers and businesspeople who benefit from provincial contracts or subsidies. They fear offending any party with a chance at ruling. But let's give credit where due.
So far, one lone municipality has spoken out against Bill 195 - tiny Huntingdon. Factory closings battered its economy in 2004, but investors from outside Quebec are now coming. Led by an ex-sovereignist mayor, Stephane Gendron, the town council adopted a motion Monday that says the bill displays an attitude that could "rupture the special harmony of Quebec," "blot Quebec's reputation on the international scene" and repel would-be investors and immigrants.
Few Montreal politicians or major employers would disagree. But until they do something about it, the quiet war between the outward-and inward-looking camps will keep Montreal in check.

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