Identity: the politics of intimidation

Suburban coverage highlighted in French media


Indépendance et minorités

Suburban and National Post featured in Journal de Montreal article on the voices of English Canada.
Our in-depth coverage of the Marois Identity Act proposals last week drew the attention of even the Journal de Montréal. In a full page 9 story the Journal featured a photo of last-week’s Suburban cover with the word “Outrageous” above the PQ leader’s picture, as well as Anthony Bonaparte’s biting editorial cartoon, next to The National Post’s front-page comment from Don Martin entitled “Racism in any language”. We’re glad to be in that company any day. This kind of spotlight was a first for The Suburban and is a realization of our publisher’s commitment of some four months ago to broaden the reach and relevance of this paper.
The photo illustrated the point that the Journal made in its headline that these were the voices of English Canada. We’ll gladly take that compliment too. It was, admittedly, very gratifying. The point was made. Our impact was felt.
Still, there are some issues that need to be reiterated. Most reactions to our coverage were positive, whether they came from English or French readers. And I was very pleasantly surprised by how many francophone readers we have. You can read these elsewhere in this edition. But we did receive some letters from the extremist fringe. And I feel that their comments too need to be addressed for they represent deep and troubling misconceptions.
Concern was raised that in [A matter of prejudice->9824] (The Suburban, Oct. 24), I seemed to be painting all francophone Quebecers with the brush of intolerance. When I directed their attention to our editorial [The big lie->9825], they saw that, to the contrary, we stressed the historic progressive political patrimony of this province. A patrimony from Papineau to Laurier to Trudeau that has been betrayed by the narcissisms of petty prejudices that the nationalists celebrate. These readers somehow didn’t make it past page 3 even though we had highlighted the editorial on the cover.
Great exception was taken to our editorial cartoon depicting a PQ Halloween party with PQ members dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes. As I explained in several radio interviews, both English and French, it is the proper role of an editorial cartoonist to make his point with extreme caricature. Few voices of dissent are heard when La Presse’s Serge Chapleau pushes the envelope of propriety as he did in the Dumont image in full Hasidic regalia. I may have disagreed with him, but I wouldn’t do anything to try and curtail him. That is the battleground of free ideas. We should all be able to stand the heat without leaving the kitchen.
But more to the point, in my interviews and in personal conversations with some of the letter writers who pointed out that bad law was not equivalent to public lynchings, I reminded one and all that the Klan was a symbol for the discrimination in the American South against blacks, and specifically against the empowerment of blacks at the ballot box. That was the Klan’s founder’s, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s, first goal. The Klan’s political agenda was focused on strengthening Jim Crow and Poll Tax laws that made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote. The methods were instigation and intimidation. And that is precisely the issue that we face here.
Pauline Marois and Daniel Turp could have chosen to call their proposal the Quebec Citizenship Act instead of the Orwellian state-speak of “identity”. But they didn’t. They meant to attack the spirit as much as the southern segregationists attacked the body. Pauline Marois and Pierre Curzi could have chosen to simply talk about the Quebec Identity Act in its citizenship proposals. That if Quebec were ever to be sovereign, then knowledge of French would be a prerequisite. Perfectly reasonable. But they didn’t. They are very smart people. They chose to launch verbal assaults precisely pinpointing the restriction of political rights that would result from a proposed Act that cannot pass and that Quebec does not have the constitutional authority to enforce even if it did, as the Quebec Human Rights Commission made clear much to Madame Marois’ displeasure.
Marois and Curzi wasted no time in making clear that a lack of an “appropriate” level of French would prevent people from running for public office, communicating with government authority and even presenting grievances to the National Assembly. Curzi went so far as stating in a radio interview that if the PQ are back in office they will waste no time in “putting teeth” in dealing with anglophones and their voting habits. He backpedaled quickly after negative reaction even from French commentators. But the intimidation was out there. The threats had been sent into the intellectual ether. And that was their intention.
Make no mistake about this. The “appropriate” level they are talking about has nothing to do with the federal requirement that you know enough English or French to pass the citizenship exam. Their proposals would leave it to the strong-armed language police to make the determination of “appropriateness”. This wasn’t about integration of immigrants. This was about instigation and intimidation of Quebecers. The continuing demonization of “les autres”. They well understood the tinderbox that Quebec is and in this desperate “Hail Mary” pass to pander for support among nationalists, they knew very well the kind of firestorm they could let loose. That’s just what they want.
To those who wrote us arguing that violence is not in Quebec’s history we reminded them of all the thugs from the letter-box bombers in the late sixties, to the FLQ killers in the seventies to today’s Raymond Villeneuves. To those who argued that our language laws were democratically passed by legislative assemblies and to some degree upheld in this nation’s highest court, we reminded them that so were the Jim Crow and Poll Tax laws in the United States.
Sadly, the virus let loose by the exhilations of Marois and Curzi were not relegated to the ranks of the PQ. Within days, in the best tradition of Quebec political pandering, Yolande James, the only minister from English Quebec; a visible minority from the West Island; the Minister for Immigration and Cultural Communities actually had the temerity to suggest that new immigrants to Quebec be forced to live in francophone areas for a certain time in order to help their “integration”. A black woman suggesting the forced movement of people. Where is George Orwell when you need him?
We have now come full circle from earlier this year when Mario Dumont raised this whole issue by suggesting Quebecers were too tolerant of others. That resonated with many in this province. Marois, soon after assuming the leadership of the PQ, stated that francophones should stop fearing to appear intolerant. She was right. They should be intolerant of intolerance. But that’s not what Marois meant, of course. She was trying to get back political ground. This proposed act was a logical extension of her previous mean-spiritedness. And now we have the Liberals getting in the act, wanting their share of this poisonous pie.
So what’s the next move? We will continue to fight bad laws until the laws stop fighting us. For laws without what Lord Action called the “equity of just consideration” are devoid of justice and are nothing more than two-edged swords of craft and oppression. As Gandhi once wrote, “We are a society of laws and not of men. But when bad men make bad laws and unprincipled officials compromise good ones then it is time to stand up and be a man — exercise responsible agitation — in order to prevent politicians from staggering drunkenly from wrong to wrong merely to perpetuate their own immortality.” Quebec’s political class continues to stagger drunkenly from wrong to wrong. If the more noble inclinations of all Quebecers triumph, rather than all these crass appeals to the lowest common denominators, then maybe the immortality of the swollen envy of pygmy minds is not assured.
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