Why it’s possible to imagine a Marois majority

Paul Wells tries to explain Quebec’s love for the charter of values

<p>Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. Her government will table legislation on secularism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot</p>

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. Her government will table legislation on secularism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

More accountability for pundits! In September, Quebec’s Parti Québécois government revealed details of its proposed “charter of Quebec values,” which aims to forbid civil servants in the province from wearing prominent religious symbols, such as head scarves and kippahs. Surely, I wrote, nobody would put up with such nonsense. “It’s make-or-break for the entire sovereignty movement,” I wrote, “and I’m pretty sure [the PQ architects of the proposed charter] just broke it.”

Yeah, well, that was wrong. A Jan. 20 Léger poll for QMI found the PQ with a three-point lead over the Opposition Quebec Liberals. The lead grows to 18 points among francophones, who determine the winner in most Quebec ridings. Satisfaction with the government of Premier Pauline Marois, which hasn’t done much that most people would notice besides talk up its headscarf ban, has risen five points in a month. Support for the ban has risen to 60 per cent among all respondents, which breaks down to 69 per cent among francophones and 26 per cent among non-francophones.

It’s possible to imagine Marois winning a majority on the strength of the headscarf ban, and increasingly likely she’ll try her luck by calling an election within weeks.

I still disagree with the whole notion of treating religious conviction as something ugly that should be hidden away. I think the Quebec charter is profoundly misguided. But I also like Quebecers and I note that many of them disagree with me, in growing numbers. What’s going on? A few things, I think.

A secular imperative. I have friends who disagree with the PQ on just about everything—but who applaud the notion that it should be impossible to tell a person’s religion by looking at him or her. These people tend to be atheists who view religion as inevitably backward and retrograde. They tend to keep books by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on the nightstand. They’d sooner everyone got over religion altogether. In the meantime they don’t want to have to look at evidence of religion.

As the Université de Montréal sociologist Marie McAndrew has pointed out, these attitudes exist everywhere, but they’re particularly common in culturally Catholic societies where there’s often widespread memory of, and a generation-old backlash against, the establishment of a state religion. Or to put it another way: the last time women in veils were a frequent sight in Quebec, they were nuns and the Quiet Revolution hadn’t begun yet. In such places, it’s arguably harder to ignore displays of faith.

The suggestive power of government. Canadians, including Quebecers, tend to trust and listen to their governments. Governments can lead opinion, and often do. I know all this sounds crazy. And the people least likely to notice the willingness of the public to be led are those who consider themselves full-time opponents of any given party in power. But it’s one reason why highly ideological politicians seek power: not for its own sake, but because it gives leaders the hope of being followed.

Islamic fundamentalism. Does anybody believe the PQ would be on this—what’s the word?— this crusade today, if 9/11 had never happened? Is anyone surprised that so many witnesses at public consultations on the PQ charter focus exclusively on Islam that government officials are left pleading with witnesses to mention other religions at least once in a while?

There’s a lot of tension around the role of Islam in Western societies. This magazine used to serve up a helping of it every week, under Mark Steyn’s signature. The notion that we can win a clash of civilizations by asking a licence-bureau clerk to show her ears makes no sense, but a lot of people are in no mood to make sense on these questions. They cannot tell which, among a lot of different people, are the ones who wish their neighbours ill, so they wish people would stop being different. Or at least that they would stop looking different.

The moral collapse of the Quebec Liberal Party. These days you can’t find the Liberals’ new leader, Philippe Couillard, with a dog and a flashlight. I wish this were more of a surprise. The notion that diversity is a strength and that there are different ways of being Québécois is on trial. That notion has animated the Quebec Liberal Party, on its better days, for more than a century. But the Liberals decided 40 years ago that there’s room for only one party with any convictions in Quebec, and that’s the PQ. Couillard represents the third consecutive case— after Daniel Johnson and Jean Charest— where the party chose the most viscerally federalist leadership candidate on offer, then surrounded him with advisers who systematically advise him not to say what he believes. The results are predictable. The PQ sets the debate’s terms, the Liberals hide under the coffee table.

It’s fun to notice, in public hearings on the proposed charter, how few of witnesses’ complaints would be addressed by the law. Once head scarves and big crucifixes are banned in the provincial workplace, the law’s supporters will wonder why bus drivers still wear them, or the guy at your corner store. Two witnesses this month became a YouTube sensation by wondering aloud why Muslims pray funny. State-endorsed recrimination isn’t easy to stop. Or, as Marois no doubt prefers to see it, it’s a growth market.