Why the English election debate tripped the Quebec campaign

Emilie Nicolas: Before weighing in on Bill 21, Canadians should learn from the Quebecers at the frontline of that battle

Emilie Nicolas is a columnist with the Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette

As someone who has played an active role in the fight against ill-advised secularism bills as well as the push for the Quebec government to recognize systemic racism, I know very well how communicating publicly around those issues can feel like walking on eggshells. You’re out there, trying to speak your truth, while navigating accusations of “putting Quebecers on trial” (of course not) and “stigmatizing Francophones, like the British elites used to do” (do I look like a Red Coat to you?). Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Then, invariably, someone from the rest of the country walks in. They often have more resources than local voices, and feel like this positions them for ‘national leadership’ despite relative cluelessness in the local context. If they are not careful, their communication style can be the equivalent of bringing matches in a basement full of gas that they (alone) cannot smell. BIPOC advocates and their allies in Quebec are left to clear the mess, deal with the consequences, and fend even stronger accusations of “Quebec-bashing” (are we not Quebecers?) and “undermining Quebec values” (don’t we also get to decide what Quebec values are?).

Such interventions feel many things. Helpful is rarely one of them.

In the last weeks, many Canadians have felt frustrated to see federal leaders repeating they would not initiate a federal court challenge against Bill 21. Yet it rarely occurs to them that several progressive Quebeckers have advised Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh and others not to, fearing it would only make the francophone social dialogue even more acrimonious—on top of being useless, given that people within Quebec are already challenging the law themselves. If a federal party was to take such an initiative, they would create a wedge amongst some of the strongest local voices against the bill. Most probably unhelpful. Again.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why people across Canada would want to join the opposition movement against Bill 21 and would like the Quebec premier to acknowledge that systemic racism exists there like everywhere else. And it’s certainly not my place to tell anyone how to feel or what to do. Most people would agree, however, that taking your cues from people most-impacted by an issue and being curious of local context are good organizing principles.

So here’s some of that context.


In 2013, Parti Quebecois premier Pauline Marois put forward the Charter of Quebec values, the (failed) predecessor of now (in)famous Bill 21. On television, I watched commentators repeating that separation of church and state in Quebec was complete since the 60’s Quiet Revolution, and that religious minorities wearing ‘ostentatious’ religious signs were the main threat to that accomplishment now.

I would have laughed if it wasn’t so sad.

I was baptized in the Catholic faith a few weeks after birth. The baptism certificate was used to enroll me in the Quebec public school system. Only with the 1994 Civil Code reform did such church documents cease to hold legal value in the province. Since obtaining an official birth certificate from the state was often expensive, generations of  poor families have been enjoined to baptize their children when they came of school age. This way was often faster, and always free.

I grew up in the small town of Lévis, near Quebec City. In my (yes, public) elementary school, catechism was part of the curriculum. The parish’s priest used to come to class and explain to us what lent was. He also enrolled us into the church basement after-school activities, where we prepared for our first communion and confirmation sacraments.

Back then, Quebec secularism in a ‘région’ meant that the one kid who was not baptized and the set of twins who happened to be Anglicans  were allowed to leave the catechism class to attend a non-denominational ‘moral’ lesson while the rest of us sang about Jesus and prepared a nativity scene for the Christmas mass. Of course, children are curious. The three outliers have been subjected to many a ‘why aren’t you normal’ type of question during recesses.

I attended a private high school. When I say that in Ontario, it creates confusion. No, my family wasn’t rich. Private schools in Quebec are subsidized by the state. Why? The Catholic church used to basically control the Quebec education system. The Quiet Revolution created the public system as we know it today, but also funded the long-established denominational schools (of the French-Canadian elites), as a way to ease the transition. The measure was supposed to be temporary. It still holds today. The tuition fees are too high for the working class, yet low enough (much less than what Ontarian parents pay annually in childcare) that many middle-class families make sacrifices and put their kids through the selection process. The result is a two-tier education system, the most unequal in all the country.

How was it to attend a publicly-funded private school that had just crossed ‘convent’ from its official name? Unlike in the Ontario system, non-Catholic children were allowed to enroll—and gaze with us at the crucifix above the blackboard. The priest would still come to school. Want to volunteer in the community? Go see the pastoral officer. Some of my teachers were nuns. One even made us say our prayers before starting class. I’ve learned some basic Latin. Our sex-ed classes (also taught by a nun) were…interesting.

Lévis is quite socially conservative, but still. I’m a 33 year-old millennial. I’m describing the 2000’s here. Not the 1950’s.

Things are different now, it’s true. With the 2008 school reform, the generation of small-town kids that follows me doesn’t have to actively opt out of general Catholic education anymore.

Pauline Marois and others were not wrong to say, in 2013,  that the role of religion in Quebec changed drastically over the course of the 20th century. But there is still a wide array of attitudes towards faith today. There is an urban-rural and an intergenerational and a cross-cultural and a linguistic and an ideological divide, as well as several cultural and institutional leftovers from the former Catholic domination. In short, it’s messy.


Civil society opposition to the 2013 Charter of Quebec values, which I was a part of, was led by a collection of strange bedfellows. There were of course Sikh, Jewish and Muslim human rights activists, including hijab-wearing women who were afraid to be barred from certain professions. There were the small-l liberal lawyers, who did not necessarily see how systemic discrimination and racism could tarnish everyday life in pernicious ways, but were not about to let pass a legislation that flew in the face of established Charter rights. There were the life-long sovereigntists, who felt it was profoundly dangerous to associate the proposed bill with nationalist pride, and that on the long-run, such policies would kill their dream of a country. And there were people like myself, not a religious minority yet racialized, who knew first-hand how explosive public debates can make the prejudiced even bolder in their words and actions.

Indeed, hate crimes against religious minorities increased in the years that followed. Even though the Parti Quebecois had lost power before passing the bill, some the media commentary aired in the context of that debate led to many feeling confident in expressing that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with ‘our values’. The bill intended to ban religious symbols from certain jobs. Some misunderstood that as a license to harass visibly religious folks on the street. Attacks against mosques became banal. We all know where that led.

Now, the people who backed the Charter of Quebec values then and the Bill 21 afterwards are also a motley crew, to say the least. Yes, there are some overtly Islamophobic groups. Yet there are also those who were fighting for laicité long before the post-9/11 identity politics became fashionable, and who vehemently oppose the school “catho-secularism” I just exposed. Some of them go further, and push for laicité to mean the establishment of atheism as the new state religion (basically). They are part of a French intellectual tradition that goes back to the Enlightenment, and associates all faiths, including Christianity, with irrationality and dark ages.

Proponents of such bills also included some of the most prominent figures of Quebecois feminism. For example, the 2013 Janettes movement was led by Janette Bertrand, a former TV host who could remember the days when the clergy would force French-Canadian women to have more babies, and then some, until they would die in childbirth. She represented a generation that associated freedom from religion with women’s liberation. Of course, there is ethnocentrism in that view: why would one’s own experience of religion be the only valid one? But there is also deep, valid trauma there. Convincing Quebec’s mainstream feminist organizations (including Quebec solidaire) that French-Canadian trauma could not be equated with a universal experience took time. And a lot of tact. It was messy, and at times violent. Several intersectional feminists burnt out in the process. Yet thanks to their efforts, many in the Quebec institutional left have come to see things differently by now.

Most people in the rest of Canada also do not realize that if they were to debate Bill 21 in a mainstream Quebec media today, their vis-à-vis would probably be someone like Bloc Quebecois candidate Ensaf Haidar, whose husband is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. While the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose the legislation, some new Quebeckers with personal experience of political violence in Muslim-majority countries have been active in the Bloc, the PQ and the CAQ, telling party members that political Islam is a threat in Canada and that they are right to support the bill. There again, understandable trauma, and blurred lines.

Those are some of the many reasons why it’s fundamentally a trap to oppose Bill 21 by speculating on intent (“All those who support it hate Muslims”) rather than insisting on impact (the legislation bans some Quebeckers from certain jobs, which is the textbook definition of employment discrimination).

During last week’s English-language debate, the moderator could have asked: “Mr. Blanchet, what do you say to Quebec Superior Court Marc-André Blanchard who has described Bill 21 as discriminatory? And if you believe it not to be discriminatory, why do you support the preemptive use of the notwithstanding clause?” If the question had been phrased as such, the English Debate Commission would not have become the main story in the Quebec campaign, overshadowing actual candidates.


Personally, I’d like to see the problematic articles of Bill 21 revoked, yet I also worry about the consequences of Canadians focusing the fight against, say, Islamophobia, on the National Assembly’s bill. I know that depictions of Islam as politically incompatible with Western values and of Muslims as infiltrated enemies have spread all across North America and Europe since 9/11. I worry that with the political climate created by the advance of the Taliban, we could see even more Trump-like country bans and Harper-style no-fly lists in the near future. I see that virtually all Western leaders speak as if their Geneva-convention duty to welcome Afghan refugees did not extend beyond the group they used to employ. I fear the proliferation of hate speech and attacks like the one we just witnessed in London, Ont.

During the campaign, I’ve watched Yves-François Blanchet, the only party leader who is not running to become prime minister, becoming the target of all questions relating to the treatment of religious minorities—leaving everyone else off the hook. I fail to understand how that serves the interests of anyone who cares about such issues.

Or am I missing something?

One thing is at least for sure. Both François Legault claiming he alone defines what Quebeckers stand for, and people from Ontario, B.C. or Alberta deriving from Legault’s speeches a general characterization of Quebec operate from the same premise. They reduce Quebec society to a rather conservative brand of nationalism. They speak as if millions of people of all walks of life in the province—especially younger generations—don’t exist. They paint homogeneous blocks, and completely erase the complexity and diversity of the place.

Those are not the most insightful takes, to say the least.

Quebec-ROC feuds like the one we’ve been going through this last week usually lead to minorities within Quebec being even less heard when they beg to differ from dominant narratives. Consequences could be felt long after the federal campaign is over. Is this really what we want?

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