By Jonathan Kay, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Kay is Comment Editor of the Toronto-based National Post newspaper. You can follow him @jonkay. The views expressed are his own. This is the fifth in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
The biggest challenge facing Canada in 2014? It’s the same one that has threatened Canadian unity since the country’s genesis: the status of the majority-French province of Quebec within Canada’s majority-Anglo confederation. But due to a series of political gambits recently launched by Quebec separatists, this age-old issue now comes with a new and disturbing post-9/11 twist.
American visitors to Montreal and Quebec City often come back describing the province as “European” in character. The term bespeaks praise for these cities’ cobblestoned historic areas, multilingual character, fine restaurants, and continental sophistication.
But, less charmingly, Quebec politicians also are more “European” than the rest of North America in their suspicious attitude toward immigrants. And this fact is creating a growing cultural estrangement between Quebec and the rest of Canada, further exacerbating the country’s longstanding rift over language.
While the United States embraces a “melting pot” approach to immigration, and Canada has embedded the principle of “multiculturalism” in its constitution, many Québécois are deeply protective of the cultural and linguistic character of their province, a largely Catholic (or lapsed Catholic) island of French in a North American Anglo Protestant sea. As in France, which banned the niqab and other face-covering garments in 2011, intellectuals and politicians in Quebec fret openly about newcomers from developing countries, Muslims especially – sometimes in a manner that the rest of Canada finds shocking and even racist.
Of course, all societies have their bigots. But the situation in Quebec has become especially problematic because of the manner by which Quebec’s separatist government is eagerly exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment to further a parochial political agenda.
The dominant party in the provincial legislature is the Parti Québécois (PQ), a 45-year-old party founded with the goal of breaking up Canada and creating a sovereign Quebec state. But polls consistently show that only a minority of Quebecers (about 30 percent to 40 percent, depending on how the question is asked) embrace the separatist cause. PQ politicians thus do their best to stir up grievances against Ottawa, in the hope that more public sentiment can be brought around to separation, and then ratified in the form of a third sovereignty referendum. (The first two, in 1980 and 1995, resulted in defeats for the separatists, which is why Quebec remains part of Canada.)
But that strategy has failed: Canada’s federal government, under both incumbent Conservative Stephen Harper and his Liberal predecessor Paul Martin, have conciliated Quebec, giving no pretext for separatist forces to rally. And so the increasingly desperate PQ has instead turned its demagogic campaign inward, against Quebec residents who dress in an “overtly religious” manner.
Under the PQ’s newly proposed “Charter Affirming the Values of Secularism” (widely known as the Secularism Charter), the provincial government would ban the display of any “overt” religious headgear by public employees – which would most notably include Mulsim hijabs, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes. (As a nod toward nominal religious neutrality, the Bill also would ban large crucifixes displayed on chains. But, as many critics have noted, the PQ failed to take down a large Christian cross adorning the provincial legislature, thereby making nonsense of their evenhanded conceit.) If the bill becomes law in 2014, a huge swathe of workers, including bureaucrats, day-care providers, teachers and medical professionals, will have to decide between publicly expressing their faith and keeping their jobs.
According to the Quebec government, such legislation would help protect Quebec society from religious extremism. But outside of a few scattered anecdotes (one trumped up controversy, for instance, revolved around the desire of a handful of Sikh children to play soccer while wearing their turbans), the urban regions where immigrants live generally are marked by peaceful co-existence. Indeed, it is only since Quebec introduced its Secular Charter in 2013 that racial and religious tensions have worsened.
The Secularism Charter has alienated the province’s immigrants and religious minorities, many of whom now wonder whether they have a future in Quebec. But for ardent separatists, this isn’t seen as a bad thing: Most newcomers to Canada care little for Quebec’s separatist grievances, and can be expected to vote no in any future referendum. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ PQ would likely be happy to see these federalists depart for other jurisdictions – along with the province’s increasingly beleaguered and disenfranchised Anglo minority – thereby leaving Quebec with a more “purified,” French-speaking, pro-sovereigntist Québécois electorate.
It is uncertain whether this gambit will work. Marois commands only a minority government in the provincial legislature, and the future of the Secularism Charter isn’t certain. Polls show support for the Charter, in the abstract, among many Francophones, especially in rural regions. But various municipalities, schools and hospitals already have declared that they will not enforce the Charter, even if it becomes law – thus raising the politically unappetizing possibility of the province having to send its agents into doctors’ offices and classrooms to confront hijab- or yarmulke-wearing public servants.
But one thing is certain: The entire episode has not only upended the social peace in Quebec, it has disgusted many Canadians outside Quebec. For decades, Quebec separatists have sought to convince the world that their worldview and Canada’s is fundamentally incompatible. They may finally have succeeded, albeit in the ugliest manner possible.