Friday, September 13, 2013

A few thoughts on Quebec Separation

Without knowing it, I became political pretty early on in my life. I grew up in an English minority Quebec town during the last Quebec Referendum, and I remember well how the topic of Quebec sovereignty dominated classrooms, grocery check out lines and dinner tables. I remember my half Irish cousins demanding to be served in both official languages even when in small Quebec towns and the amount of public servants talking about having to take 'stupid French lessons' to advance in their career. The political was very personal.

'Separation' to me always brought forth ridiculous images of toll booths on the inter provincial bridges, something tangible and silly since Ontario, that other province, was within a stone's throw. Border crossing was something my parents did every day, usually on the way to work. The thought of this becoming a passport check was always strange, and even without understanding the full implications of government at the time, I knew that this was a problem.

Government for me at that age was a chart composed of boxes representing various levels- the Parliament, the Senate, the provinces, etc. But then came the awareness that government affects pretty much everything you do: where you work, what you eat, what you drive, your health and welfare, your daily choices. I've heard those people who say 'politics don't affect me' or 'politics don't interest me' and you're wrong on both counts; everything is political, everything affects you and everything SHOULD interest you. Unless you're a mindless slug, it all matters.

That point was driven home by the Referendum. My father told me his story of immigrating to Canada through Quebec City, and how he remembers mounting all of those stairs to get into the province to start his new life in Canada. It's a poignant image of the dedication and sheer work that it takes to make a new beginning and he has never looked back since. The thought of seeing his Canada disappear through a crucial vote upset him.

My parents weren't the only people upset by this vision. Businesses left Quebec in droves, as did other immigrants and anglophones who imagined a troubled province, should the vote go through. Does anyone remember how the house prices crashed during the Referendum? Does anyone remember the mass exodus of businesses, most of whom simply shipped to Toronto? Does anyone outside of Montreal remember this?

If the current situation in Quebec veers back in the direction of the Referendum of the 1990s, they can count on a lot of those things happening again. Unrest, departures and economic crash are just a couple of the concerns they should have. Beyond that, they should also consider the very real and dangerous implications of the proposed Quebec Values Charter. It's a slippery slope when you begin to protect culture through discrimination. Today it's religious symbols, but what will it be tomorrow? What else will be perceived as 'ostentatious' or a threat to Quebecois culture? Who else is going to be a problem group?

Quebec is taking a lot of its cues from France, a country not known for its diversity or tolerance. A lot of France's cultural protectionists are now setting their eyes on China and similar Asian countries that are seen to be 'taking over' the global economy. Will Quebec take a page from that song book as well, and start denouncing Asian symbols? True, most Asians don't run around with 'ostentatious' marks of their 'Asianness' on them, but will people be offended by Asian writing characters on t-shirts, silk dresses, chopsticks in the hair, Hello Kitty bags?

What about 'black' culture? Will the next roll out of ostentatiousness include dreads? A young straight A student in the USA has already been sent home for violating the school dress code by wearing dreads. It may not be threatening, but it does seem inherently not Quebecois purelaine. The line is pretty hard to tell between protecting and promoting the culture, and outright surpressing and eliminating the other.

What frightens me most about the possible aftermath of a separatist Quebec the way it stands now is that an insular Quebec will one day actively root out all the un-Quebec things within it. Its focus on maintaining its culture may come at the cost of the expulsion of others. I fear that the good people of Quebec will simply leave the province, unwilling to stay and fight, unwilling to see their tax dollars promote cultural exclusion and pursue a separatist agenda.

It may appear too early or over-reactionary to think these things, but history has shown that cultural preservation can often give way to the notion of cultural and racial purity. This is not a sign to ring all the alarm bells, but maybe a sign to ring at least one.

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