The startling outcome of the provincial election in Quebec is still fresh in our minds. Is it too early to ponder what impact the results will have on the Jewish community in Quebec? I don’t think so.
On Oct. 1, after governing for most of the past 15 years, the Liberals, traditionally the choice of both Anglophone and Francophone Jews, won only 32 seats and lost power to the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by Francois Legault, who roared to majority power, capturing 74 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly of Quebec.
The Parti Québécois, which had alternated power with the Liberals since 1976, were reduced to a demoralizing remnant of nine seats. Québec Solidaire (QS) more than tripled its seat count to 10, flying the banners of socialism, environmentalism and Quebec independence (which the party frames as the vehicle to achieve the other two).
The Rosetta Stone to deciphering election results is the ballot box question. For Legault it was: who will solve the immigrant problem? Will immigrants learn our language and our ways and become like us? It appears the CAQ leader got the question right, and provided the answers that the electorate was looking for. However, I believe his answers will – surely and shortly – have a major impact on the Jewish community.
Legault campaigned on a plan to cut by 10,000 the number of immigrants Quebec selects annually, and to administer a “values” test and a French language test to new immigrants three years after selection. For those who fail, he would pressure Ottawa to deport them (while also pressuring Ottawa to reduce overall refugee claims). He also plans to fire those “in positions of authority” who wear religious garb, on the pretext that they are expressing a bias detrimental to their role.
To many I spoke with, these positions are jarring, even for those who support other parts of the CAQ plank, such as lower taxes and smaller government. Meanwhile, while anti-poverty activists and environmentalists, especially younger members of our community, found much to like in QS’s platform, the party’s hostility to religious garb triggered a similar dissonance (though it would not ban anyone wearing religious symbols, including face coverings, from accessing public services, as the Liberals’ Bill 62 did). Besides, QS’s centralizing projet de société, financed by increasing taxes to corporations and the wealthy, scares the dickens out of most people in the Jewish community. For one thing, its wealthiest members have been the main benefactors of our community’s hospitals, schools, social centres and libraries – achievements that bind us and nourish our pride.
No matter who Montreal Jews voted for, they retain a visceral allegiance to human rights. We all know community members who wear religious clothing. We know this does not indicate a disqualifying bias, no more so than wearing a tattoo or nose ring. Our memories of Montreal hospitals, law firms and universities discriminating against Jewish applicants are still raw. We cannot forget, either, that Canada’s doors were closed to refugees fleeing Nazism. Because, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world’s third largest population of survivors joined our community.
Côte Saint-Luc’s Human Rights Walkway honours human rights icons, including its own Irwin Cotler. We are constantly reminded, in schools and synagogues, of one of our foundational values: “You shall not oppress or mistreat a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt. Do not afflict the widow or the orphan.”
In present-day Quebec, Muslims are the “strangers.” Polls disclose that most quebecois de vielle souche (old stock Quebecers) are disturbed by Muslim women wearing face and hair coverings, partly because they think their male relatives compel them to cover up. That strikes many as degrading a woman’s autonomy, the principle that now governs gender relations in Quebec. Some also seem to believe that wearing Muslim veils renders women impervious to absorbing Quebec values.
As Muslim families have more children than quebecois de vielle souche, Muslims make up a significant proportion of immigrants, and la survivance becomes Quebecers’ chief concern, a toxic atmosphere forms that favours polices that “oppress the stranger.”
To be clear, most francophone Quebecers are fair-minded; they will not support a Marine Le Pen-style platform that expressly denigrates the outsider. That is why the doctrine of laicité (secularism) has been imported from France to provide philosophical cover (although this does not convince anyone who asks why the crucifix still hangs prominently in the legislature).
Although Legault invokes secularism to justify firing judges, police and teachers who wear religious identifiers, everybody knows that it is Muslim women who are the real targets. But the laicité pretext renders those “in authority” who wear kippot or turbans collateral damage. (Meanwhile, Legault has clearly said in the National Assembly that he could not imagine seeing a judge on the bench wearing a kippah; the “reasonable accommodation” debate began with a court challenge to a school prohibiting a Sikh student from carrying a kirpan, way back in 2006.)
Nevertheless, if even one-kippah wearing crown prosecutor has to choose between his job and his kippah, that will ring alarm bells in our community.
The CAQ won only two seats on the island of Montreal, where most of Quebec’s 250,000 Muslims live. In the “regions”, where fear of the seldom-seen stranger is stronger, the CAQ won its other 72 seats. So lately, Legault has added a threat to use the notwithstanding clause to bolster his promise to “secularize” persons in authority. Anger and court challenges are inevitable. The CAQ will then be pitted against those in the Jewish community who dislike laws that oppress the stranger and who will be unimpressed by a magic wand called laicité.