thoughts on the bouchard-taylor xenophobia commission

I have six posts sitting in drafts about the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Every time I started to write, the entry devolved into some version of "what is wrong with these people??", and I gave up.

But no one reads wmtc for breaking news. Maybe in February, I'll blog about Canada's embarrassing obstructionism in Bali.

So from the Better Late Than Never Department, this time the post is going up.

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If I were a Quebecker, I'd be painfully embarrassed by the public spectacle of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. The Commission, supposedly studying reasonable accommodation of religious minorities "in response to public discontent" of those accommodations, is a carnival of racism, nativism and xenophobia. It would a laughingstock - if it weren't so dangerous.

As the Commission's road show continues, I've noticed a certain amount of delicacy in some of the media when dealing it. Are we Anglophones not supposed to criticize anything that comes from French Canada?

Racism is racism is racism, and it isn't any more palatable if it comes from a community that was once the target of racism themselves. Indeed, a case could be made that it's even worse, which is why I hate to see racism among Jewish people. I think we should know better.

The Commission was supposedly necessary because Quebec needs "a dialogue" about multiculturalism. The rights of women are supposedly being trampled in the Muslim community. And how shall we save Muslim women from themselves? By stoking fear and hatred of Muslims.

For a while there, each pronouncement emanating from the Commission was more outlandish than the next, a can-you-top-of-this of barely-disguised invective.

There was the veiled voting flap (I mentioned it briefly), which was never actually a problem at polling stations.

Quebec lawyer Guy Bertrand accused Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu of "contempt for our language," because he is not fluent in French. The man was born in Finland, and speaks English and Finnish. From what I gather, he's a top player, a team leader, a cancer survivor and has lost some vision in one eye from an accident on the ice. Bertrand's statement was roundly (and rightly) rejected as nonsense, but it stands as a milestone in the What Will These People Say Next department.

Even the old kosher-tax myth reared its ugly head, because what's a racism and xenophobia without a little anti-Semitism thrown in?

The town of Hérouxville became famous when it passed a "manifesto" banning stoning and burning women. Guess what? That's illegal everywhere in Canada. No special laws are needed to prevent the Muslim hordes from burning women. One might almost think someone in Hérouxville wanted to stone a woman to death.

The declaration reads: "We wish to inform these new arrivals that the way of life which they abandoned when they left their countries of origin cannot be recreated here." So all the professional, middle-class Muslim families who are emigrating to Canada have abandoned "a way of life" where they murdered women in the town square? We might as well say Allan and I abandoned cross-burning and lynching. I've yet to figure out if anyone in Hérouxville has actually seen an immigrant.

In a CBC story, I read that "'Canadian style' multiculturalism a menace to Quebec, commission hears." Another Quebecker said, "I am ashamed to be a Quebecer sometimes, like when I hear idiocies like those coming from Hérouxville. ... Ignorance and fear produce xenophobia and racism, and the ideas of the extreme right."

I do wonder how much popular support this movement really has in Quebec. After all, it's easy to think everyone in the US is a bible-thumping, war-mongering, Wal-Mart shopping Bushbot. (No, they're not!) This op-ed by Lysiane Gagnon says that even René Lévesque, founder of the Parti Québécois, would have been disgusted.

For me, the worst part of this spew is when it's cloaked in women's rights. Christiane Pelchat, the president of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, said, "Freedom of religion must be limited, intrinsically, by the right to equality between women and men". According to the Council, Islamic symbols such as the headscarf send "a message of the submission of a woman, which should not be conveyed to young children as part of a secular education, which is required to promote equality between men and women."

Freedom of religion should only be limited by what's illegal under the law. Telling a woman she cannot wear a niqab or hijab, which she feels is an expression of her faith, is not a step towards women's rights. It's just one group imposing their standards on another.

I found lots of good writing and organizing against the Commission, which was uplifting. The wonderfully-named blog Fagstein had some very good pieces.
The Quebec council on the status of women seeks to impose a dress code on all public employees, preventing them from wearing "visible religious symbols" like a scarf over their head or a little hat. Of course, it goes without saying that Catholics wearing crosses around their necks are specifically exempt. They get special treatment because they believe in the correct God.

Mostly Water reprinted this statement by the Montreal chapter of No One Is Illegal.
The "reasonable accommodation" debate in Quebec, and the related "Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences" (the so-called "Bouchard-Taylor Commission"), are fundamentally rooted in xenophobia, racism and sexism.

From the outset, the "debate" fails to recognize that Quebec and Canada are built on stolen Indigenous land, and constituted through the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples who have been forced into "accommodating" colonization. Moreover, it completely ignores the fact that racism and white supremacy were intrinsically tied to the creation of both Canada and Quebec, and throughout their histories, have been instrumental in defining who "belongs" and who does not.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission was created in the context of xenophobia during an election campaign and has provided an uncontested platform for racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Opportunistic politicians and corporate media have appealed to public fears and prejudices, and manipulated false controversies over religious practices and cultural differences to create a generalized hysteria, with little to no basis in fact. In its very framework it creates a binary of 'us' vs. 'them'; the 'us' being made up of white people of European descent, and the 'them' being whichever non-white immigrant group is currently under the spotlight.

The supposed "debate" has made open bigotry publicly acceptable, using simplistic caricatures that render our communities homogenous, uncontested and monolithic. While we reject this offensive portrayal of our communities, we assert the diversity of our cultures and traditions as well as our multiple identities. [More here.]

There's a good photo on the blog Tadamon! of a No One Is Illegal Protest. Tadamon! is an excellent blog, written in three languages, and worth a visit if only for the brilliant masthead featuring a portion of "Guernica".

Here's an excellent story about community groups organizing to reject the racism and xenophobia of the Commission - worth looking at with the photos.

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You know, the xenophobes who support the Bouchard-Taylor Commission owe a huge debt to multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism gives them a smokescreen to hide behind. They can claim "widespread public discontent" - and then create some.

Without an official Canadian policy of multiculturalism, they'd be forced to baldly state their true purpose: "We believe our culture is superior to everyone else's! We hate and fear people not like ourselves!"


Lone Primate said...

There is a kind of different dynamic with Quebec, and a lot of them don't want to hear what we have to say that's critical. It has to do with the nature of power relationships, or at least the perceived ones. English Canadians will scratch their heads and think it's silly… but just let the US criticize Canada or "try to tell us what to do"…

Quebec's outlook has always been different from ours. It has to be. Quebeckers have spent the last 250 years fighting just to exist. Even the first attempt at uniting Canada in the 1840s was a naked, guileless attempt by Lord Durham to dissolve French Canada into English Canada… he made no bones about it. It's hard for people to forget something like that, or completely get over the insult that offers to who one is and so much of what one holds dear. I wouldn't. The mindset of French Canada has been "la survivance"… survival. They're proud that they've done so well on that raft in this English sea, and they have every right to be.

The attitudes of the English have changed, of course; long gone are the days when "Prime Minister's Office" was or could be painted on the door in unaccompanied English. But we're still deaf to a lot of their concerns. Often, we take them by sheer force of numbers in directions they're not eager to go. Much of English Canada was ready for multiculturalism in the 1960s, and ethnicity was removed from our immigration policies. The implications of that, and there were several, didn't always sit well with even urban Quebec, much less rural. But English Canadians don't feel those same threats in their gut. Immigrants come here and largely speak English… swell, if you're anglophone. Not so great if that's the group you've been holding your own against. Even if we lost out to our great national nightmare, absorption by the United States, not much about who we are on a daily basis would change. We'd all still speak English, watch the same shows, cheer the same teams, sing the same songs. Something would be lost, yes, but not everything. But if Quebec loses its francophone culture, then, really, it ceases to be Quebec as anything but a shape on the map.

I think we risk alienating Quebec… never hard to do at the best of times… if we just ask them to adopt the same attitudes as us. They have fears for their future that simply don't trouble us for our own, and we do well to acknowledge that. We need to be critical of extremes, yes; that's a responsibility. But I think that response needs to be measured – and as you have remarked, in much of English Canada, it is. We know what pushes their buttons and we've matured enough to be careful not to. This is a place that's had two referenda in my lifetime about quitting Canada partly driven by demographic fears, and they're in earnest about these things. The Commission will do some good, I think, in exposing the extremes and raising the bar. But we, outside Quebec, won't do the process any favours trying to rush it. Things will always be a little different for and in Quebec, and what's kept the country together – barely – these past 50 years is that we've had the wisdom to accommodate that.

I think over the next couple of generations, they'll calm down about their future. I already see it, to some extent. This commission itself is an indication. They will come to terms with things, but it'll take some time.

laura k said...

I understand where you're coming from, but I don't think we should excuse racism in any form. Among other things, we shouldn't presuppose all French Canadians wanted this Commission or agree with its findings.

But I think that response needs to be measured – and as you have remarked, in much of English Canada, it is. We know what pushes their buttons and we've matured enough to be careful not to.

On your blog, Lone Primate, you've often railed against Quebec using the threat of secession to get what it wants, and expressed impatience or downright disgust with Quebec's demands. I'm not digging up exact posts, but I'm sure I've seen that sentiment at CITT. How does that square with this?

Lone Primate said...

I'm one of those guys who needs to be periodically reminded of the fine line. ;) Nearly 40 years of watching things unfold often sets me off, beyond what even I'd consider reasonable. So I'm speaking truth to power here.

I think we need to be careful using the term racism too readily too. There's a difference between xenophobia and racism. It's possible to be xenophobic without being racist. People in Quebec, for instance, can fear for the survival of their ways as threatened by someone like me, and I'm not only European, I'm partly French Canadian. I won't pretend that none of them are motivated by concerns about skin colour or eye shape, but I believe it's much more common they're worried about how Quebec will change, and how they'll have to change, and what kind of place it will be for their grandchildren. We're all guilty of that. I we weren't, you wouldn't have spent two years juggling paperwork to get here... you'd have just packed your bags and moved. Obviously, we're guarding again something to make it that hard to get here, erecting barricades between "us" and "them"... we're just pretty good about letting "them" become "us" if they pass the test.

I think it's important to recognize the intentions in Quebec... whatever they might be in the heart of hearts, which we can never know, what they are is an attempt to limit how much society in Quebec changes, and how quickly. They're not saying some people can't move there, some people can't have some professions, some people can't swear on certain books in court or if they do they can't hold office or vote. None of that. What they are doing is discouraging the institutionalization of different identities in Quebec that are visibly different from how it's been traditionally, and encouraging the adoption of established ways be newcomers... that's all. Canada itself does the same thing, but to a less onerous degree. For us, the character of the way it's being done in Quebec raises alarms, but it didn't for my grandparents. And to some extent, every society on Earth practices normalization controls, in practice if not in law. Quebec is more overt about it than the rest of Canada, but given the nature of the culture, they always have been and they probably always will. I will use the term "xenophobia" to characterize the policies being discussed there, but I'd draw the line at calling it racism -- compare Jim Crow laws and the like. To blithely condemn them that way would be to confirm their greatest fears about us... that we really don't understand and don't care to. That's always been an inducement to separate.

Yeah, we coddle Quebec. One of the reasons I get upset about it is because I know we have to, or we lose the country, such as it is. But I think it's a period through which we have to pass, and we're fated to live at the time of. Sometime last week, I blogged about Quebec and the extremes, and I suggested that just living the way they live and encouraging people to join in is the best insurance they can have of seeing their culture survive. I think most of them believe the same thing, and that's coming out in the revelations of the committee. As here, and elsewhere, the extremists will learn it's a losing battle. I think it's inevitable.

laura k said...

I think we need to be careful using the term racism too readily too. There's a difference between xenophobia and racism. It's possible to be xenophobic without being racist.

Yes... and no.

Since race is just a social construct, racism can mean a lot of different things. In the 1850s, white protestant Americans railed against the Italian and Irish "races" who were polluting "their" country. Neither were considered really white.

Now the descendants of those Italian and Irish immigrants are as white as white, and there's other people to pick on.

Most of the Muslim immigrants that are the targets of the Commission are visible minorities, people of colour.

If racism is the wrong word, then anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-other... it doesn't matter. To me it's all different branches of the same poisonous family tree.

you wouldn't have spent two years juggling paperwork to get here... you'd have just packed your bags and moved.

I don't think that's part of it, as Canada's immigration policy is very clearly in favour of - and dependent on - people of all nations. The application process has more to do with people who will be contribute economically and pay into the system.


I can appreciate what you're saying about the origins of this spectacle. But I think what we're seeing, at botom, is bigotry. And I think it's a mistake to excuse bigotry no matter where you find it.

My parents excused all kinds of horrible stuff because it came from Israel, and Israel was special to them in a way that it's virtually impossible for non-Jews (and anyone too far removed from the Holocaust) to understand. They had all kinds of excuses why "it was different" when it came from Israel. I know you would never have agreed with them. But you're saying very similar things about Quebec.

I think we have to support our own values wherever we find them, and likewise, we have to reject intolerance wherever we find it, too, and not make excuses.

here, and elsewhere, the extremists will learn it's a losing battle. I think it's inevitable.

It's clearly not inevitable, as a glance around the world will show.

And if the extremists in Quebec lose eventually, how many people who don't conform to the majority will be hurt in the process?

impudent strumpet said...

My first unedited and uncensored thought when this thing first entered the news was "You're Quebec! You're supposed to be better than that!"

Haven't yet figured out how to take that sentiment and make it productive.

laura k said...

"You're Quebec! You're supposed to be better than that!"

I like that!

I confess I had a nasty thought relating what's going on there to similar bigotry I've read about happening in France. Not nice.