'I miss René Lévesque," writes a reader who is, just like so many people I talk to, deeply disgusted by the wave of intolerance that is sweeping through Quebec. This is a current unleashed by the demagogic exploitation of a few minor problems with religious minorities that led the province's three major political parties to outdo each other on identity issues.
Mr. Lévesque, the late founder of the Parti Québécois and Quebec premier from 1976 to 1985, was both a sovereigntist and a democrat. He would have stopped the current hysteria in a second. He would have revealed the xenophobic Hérouxville manifesto to be what it was - paranoia from a village that has never seen an immigrant - instead of caving in, like Premier Jean Charest, to the extreme nationalist minority. Fearful of losing votes to the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec, who championed the Hérouxville manifesto, Mr. Charest participated in the over-dramatization of a series of minor incidents, and in turn set up a commission to investigate touchy issues such as the accommodation of religious minorities, immigration and identity.
Granted, most Quebeckers loved Mr. Lévesque, and the late premier had a huge moral authority, while Mr. Charest, an unpopular and embattled politician, seems willing to violate his own liberal principles to stay in power. His latest move, inspired by the feminist ideologues of the Conseil du statut de la femme (the province's women's rights organization), is a promise to modify Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to give the principle of gender equality priority over religious freedom.
The subtext of Mr. Charest's move is very clear: It is aimed at veiled women, who are seen as oppressed and should be encouraged (forced?) to leave their religious beliefs at home. One constitutional lawyer from Laval University, Henri Brun, quietly mused - without seeming to be the least disturbed by the possibility - that this new provision might allow a shop owner to refuse to hire a woman wearing a hijab.
Of course, since the provincial charter of rights is an ordinary law - it can be changed at the whim of politicians who happen to be in power - any effects it would have could be struck down by the courts. Still, it is disheartening to see a premier, and a Liberal one at that, establish a hierarchy of rights for purely electoral reasons.
Not to be outdone on the identity front, Pauline Marois, the PQ's new leader, followed suit with her own proposal that would force immigrants to pass a French-language exam three years after their arrival in order to receive the "Quebec citizenship" that would allow them to run for provincial, municipal and school board elections. Those who failed the test would lose the right to run for office (except at the federal level), as well as the right to petition the National Assembly and to contribute to political parties. Again, this is a fiction. Provinces can't grant "citizenship" and, in any case, practically all the jurists interviewed on the issue, including Quebec's own human rights commissioner, agree such a proposal is discriminatory and would be deemed unconstitutional.
The funny part of the story, if there is one, is that Ms. Marois, who apparently thinks three years is enough time for immigrants to learn French, never managed in her whole lifetime (she's 58) to learn to speak English properly - and this even though she wants to become premier. (All of Ms. Marois's predecessors at the helm of the PQ spoke English very well.)
The hearings on reasonable accommodation are replete with outrageous comments. Last week, the commission heard a lawyer - worse, a lawyer who says he worked in the field of human rights for 17 years - suggest that the question of how to accommodate (or not) religious minorities be put to a referendum. In what kind of society would the rights of minorities be submitted to the majority?
Yes indeed, René Lévesque would roll over in his grave.