Opinion

The identity obsession has been all-consuming for Quebec, just as the provincial Liberals like it

The pessimist might say Liberals simply lack the courage to settle a deeply divisive issue. The cynic believes just the opposite: that Liberals have purposefully allowed the debate to drag on, if only to make political hay out of it time and again.

Couillard's defence of the idea of a hijab-wearing cop would be charming were it not politically motivated

The pessimist might say Liberals simply lack the courage to settle a deeply divisive issue. The cynic believes just the opposite: that Liberals have purposefully allowed the debate to drag on. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In 2006, leaders in Montreal's Hasidic community approached the YMCA in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood with a request. Could the YMCA perhaps frost the windows at the front of its building, which had recently shed its old blinds, so that the Hasidim would be shielded from displays of Spandexed flesh?

An odd request, perhaps, but not a totally ridiculous one; most health clubs shade their front windows, albeit usually for the sake of the clients. Yet in making this appeal to the YMCA, the Hasidim sparked a crise de conscience surrounding immigrants and religious minorities in Quebec. And thanks to the eternally cynical machinations of Quebec's political class, we are living through one once again as the province approaches an October election.

From oddity to crisis

Fuelled by tabloid media at the time, the YMCA incident went from oddity to crisis in a matter of days. "Windows Changed To Please The Hassidic Jews" screamed the Journal de Montréal headline. The Journal, and to a lesser extent its competitor La Presse, sought out further apparently unreasonable requests on the part of non-white, non-Catholic Quebecers.

We heard of Muslims who wanted pork-free beans, veiled women who dared swim with their religious headgear and Jews who kicked out an ambulance driver from a hospital cafeteria for eating a ham sandwich. All these stories, while true, were presented as though a tide of doctrinaire (and decidedly non-Catholic) religiosity was spreading outward from the multicultural purgatory of Montreal to the regions.

Wary of the approaching religious horde, the town of Hérouxville (population 1,235, with nary an immigrant among them) wrote a "code of conduct" for would-be new arrivals, which specifically outlawed the stoning and genital mutilation of women.

Hérouxville's code of conduct made explicit what these torqued headlines suggested: that immigrants, particularly those from religious minorities, exist to butcher their wives and mutilate their children's genitals — that is, when they aren't busy forcing their religion down our secular throats.

These examples were the dry tinder that fuelled a deep and abiding malaise in Quebec — one that burns to this day. Last week the Journal de Montréal struck again by searching out SondosLamrhari, a 17-year-old police sciences student thought to be the only would-be Quebec police officer to wear a hijab. "She is strong," her mother told the paper. "She is a real Quebecer."

Apparently not, according to Quebec's political class. The following day Agnès Maltais, the opposition Parti Québécois's "secularism critic," suggestedLamrhari was somehow a "victim" of her religion who should "go work at the RCMP" if she wants to wear a hijab. Nathalie Roy, Maltais's equivalent in the Coalition Avenir Québec party, was no less dismissive—though somewhat more hypocritical.

"Clearly, a person in a position of authority can't serve God and the state at the same time," Roy said while standing mere feet away from the National Assembly's outsized gold crucifix. It has stared down on Quebec's elected representatives since 1936, the ultimate reminder of God's supremacy. Last year, the CAQ opposed a motion to have the crucifix removed.

Lamrhari is studying police tech at Ahuntsic College in Montreal. (Radio-Canada)

Throughout the years, the governing Liberal Party of Quebec has positioned itself as the multicultural balm to the nativistic ramblings of its opposition. In the last few weeks alone, Liberal MNAs have accused its critics of practising "ethnic nationalism" and of being "pro-white family." In the case of Lamrhari, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard dared opposition leaders to "look at [her] in the eyes and tell her that they don't want her to be a police officer in Quebec."

Couillard's righteous indignation would be charming were it not politically motivated. Save for a brief 18 months, the Liberal Party has been in power for the last 15 years, during which Quebec's identity debate has festered into an all-consuming political obsession.

For this, we can thank the inaction on the part of successive Liberal governments, Couillard's included. In 2008, a wide-ranging government report on "reasonable accommodations" recommended that police, judges, correctional officers and other state employees with coercive powers be prevented from wearing religious garb. At the very least, those who wear religious symbols would have clear, government-mandated boundaries.Yet the Liberals never implemented these recommendations, despite promises to do so. The ensuing ambiguity as to the place and space given to religious minorities has created a vacuum filled by chest-thumping nationalism on the part of the PQ and the CAQ.

Making political hay

Quebecers have gone to the ballot box three times since 2008, with the identity question either looming under the surface or, as in 2014, as a full-blown campaign on the backs of Quebec's religious minorities. That year, the governing Parti Québécois introduced the so-called values charter, which sought to ban all religious accoutrements from the bodies of anyone drawing a government paycheque.

The pessimist might say Liberals simply lack the courage to settle a deeply divisive issue. The cynic believes just the opposite: that Liberals have purposefully allowed the debate to drag on, if only to make political hay out of it time and again — and to count themselves on the side of angels each time.

If the latter is true, Couillard's recent righteous display was a masterstroke, and it sets the table for yet another election to be fought on an supposedly long-running problem we don't actually have.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Martin Patriquin

Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.

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