Citizenship proposal has a price

Citoyenneté québécoise - Conjoncture de crise en vue

MONTREAL - The sovereignist proposal to create a language-based Quebec citizenship has everything to do with desperate times calling for desperate measures and very little with shoring up the French language or even the elusive concept of the Quebec nation.
If a referendum on sovereignty were expected to be in the works anytime soon, there is no way that the Parti Québécois would put forward a proposal that has led foes and friends alike to accuse it of wanting to create two classes of citizens.
The notion that newcomers to Quebec would have to pass a French proficiency test to enjoy full democratic rights is in clear breach of the Canadian and Quebec charters. The PQ argument that the courts would find it reasonable to infringe on the rights of future Quebec residents to protect the French character of the province does not stand the test of reality.
A Radio-Canada survey of Quebec school boards and municipal councils this week failed to turn up a single instance of an elected official not already meeting the minimal French-language requirements the Parti Québécois says it has in mind.
It may be virtually impossible to contemplate a political career in Quebec without mastering French but the opposite is not true. Pauline Marois is the least bilingual leader to ever head the PQ. By comparison to her rudimentary English, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is a master of eloquence in Canada's other official language.
That has not prevented Marois from reaching the top rungs of the Quebec political ladder but these days it may be insulating her from the damage she is wreaking on her image, that of her party and, by extension, Quebec itself.
For most of the out-of-province coverage has focused on the PQ plan rather than on the fact that it was actually dead on arrival. The Quebec Liberals and the Action démocratique du Québec party have rejected it out of hand as did the left-leaning Québec Solidaire.
The bulk of commentators, including most of those normally sympathetic to the PQ, have torn the plan to shreds. A number of them have described it as Marois's first significant misstep. What is certain is that the policy stands to both define and distinguish her from her predecessors.
It has made former leader Bernard Landry uncomfortable enough to publicly call on Marois to replace one of the most controversial provisions of her bill with a commitment to extend automatic citizenship rights to anyone moving to Quebec from the rest of Canada.
Many péquistes are also privately unhappy to find themselves in the eye of a self-made storm on the very week when a provincial commission is hearing outlandish testimony urging that Quebec leave the federation if it cannot get all religious rights excised from the Constitution.
All of which apparently matters not a whit to the PQ ideologues who have mapped out this dubious course. Their narrow focus is on winning back the votes they lost to the Action démocratique du Québec in francophone Quebec last spring. They are convinced that the way to do so is to engage in a bidding war on the slippery ground of identity politics.
A poll this week showed that a bare majority of Quebec francophones support the citizenship proposal; Marois is now seen as a stauncher champion of Quebec identity than Mario Dumont, albeit by a narrow margin.
But for how long and at what cost?

Chantal Hébert's national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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