'Bill 21 is a pedestal on which we must build': Quebec nationalists mull what comes next

With the popular secularism law passed, Quebec's nationalist movement is now strategizing on how to use it as a beachhead to launch a multi-pronged attack on Canadian multiculturalism.

Movement plans on stricter language laws, more immigration cuts, end to ethics and religious culture courses

The Institut de recherche sur le Québec’s research director Mathieu Bock-Côté spoke on a panel discussion called ‘Freedom of expression in question’ (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Fresh off the victory of passing Bill 21, the province's secularism law, Quebec's nationalist movement is already strategizing on how to use it as a beachhead to launch a multi-pronged attack on Canadian multiculturalism.

Many of the movement's leading intellectuals met last month at a conference in Montreal.

"We've won a battle, the first in a while," said the opening speaker, Étienne-Alexis Boucher, a former Parti Québécois MNA and president of the Mouvement national des Québécoises et Québécois.

"But only the first of many more, I hope."

After "15 years of Liberal submission" — Boucher's words — Quebec nationalists feel they finally have an ally in Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec government.

It's time, they say, to take advantage.

The November conference was organized by the Institut de recherche sur le Québec, a think tank founded in 2002 that studies 'the Quebec national question.' Its head of research is right-wing pundit Mathieu Bock-Côté.

For the occasion, Bock-Côté assembled a slate of thinkers who have been pushing a nationalist agenda in the media, in academia and in politics. Many have ties to the PQ.

Those speakers included Dawson College history teacher Frédéric Bastien, who has been musing about running for the PQ leadership, and Guillaume Rousseau, a Université de Sherbrooke constitutional law professor who advised the CAQ government on Bill 21 after running unsuccessfully for the PQ in the last election.

The conference, held on Nov. 2, touched on a variety of topics, including the role of culture in integrating new immigrants. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The day-long session at the Université du Québec à Montréal, which attracted about 100 people, offered some clues to where nationalists are hoping to make gains during Legault's mandate.

The participants batted around proposals to beef up Quebec's language laws, cut immigration levels and eliminate all instruction on comparative religions from the school curriculum.

But the road ahead will not be easy, they warn, especially with dyed-in-the wool federalist Justin Trudeau occupying 24 Sussex Drive.

"Clearly the federal regime will try to dismantle Bill 21, like how it methodically attacked Bill 101," said Boucher, "but we will be there to fight back."

"Bill 21 is a pedestal on which we must build."

Who wants to re-open Bill 101?

The day's discussions, naturally, began with language — and how to reverse what is seen as a decades-long erosion of the supremacy of French in the province, on the island of Montreal and beyond.

On a table near the auditorium's entrance, copies of the 35-year-old nationalist, left-wing publication L'aut'journal ("the other newspaper") warned of the "balkanization of Quebec," in capital letters, above a map of the Liberal-red islands of Montreal and Laval, all but surrounded by a sea of blue.

Among the publications on offer to participants was this one, L’aut’journal. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Frédéric Lacroix, a contributor to the newspaper, pointed to data showing that francophones, as a proportion of their demographic weight in the province, are in a steady decline. Montreal is basically a lost cause, he said. Laval, too, is far gone.

"Laval is a case study of what's happening in the Montreal region," Lacroix said, warning these changes have political consequences.

"We see that the Quebec Liberal Party took almost all the seats in Laval," he said of the 2018 provincial election. "It's something that would have been unimaginable only 15 years ago."

His fellow panelist, lawyer François Côté, said the solution to the language problem starts with ditching English as an official language in laws passed by the National Assembly.

Since a 1979 Supreme Court decision, legislation in Quebec must be adopted in both French and English.

That sets a bad example for immigrants, Côté said.

"What's the point of learning French," he asked, "when even the state, the top of the national pyramid, expresses itself in French and English?" 

Côté even floated the idea of defying the Supreme Court ruling if Ottawa wasn't willing to allow Quebec to work around it.

"Courts are not gods," he said.

And he said it is time to strengthen the enforcement arm of the Office québécois de la langue française, derided by many Anglos as the "language police."

"The OQLF must imperatively grow some teeth," Côté said.

Immigration as 'demo-linguistic suicide'

The idea that the survival of the historic francophone majority is at stake is perhaps expressed most starkly in Jacques Houle's book, Disparaître? (To Disappear.)

Now in its third printing, the book has turned into an unexpected hit for the retired federal bureaucrat who lectures to seniors in the continuing education program at the Université de Sherbrooke.

When Bock-Côté, who wrote the book's preface, took to Twitter saying Disparaître? should be mandatory reading for nationalist leaders and militants, PQ interim leader Pascal Berubé tweeted back, "I have this book."

Houle argues that unless current immigration levels are slashed from 40,000 per year (the figure was 50,000 under the previous Liberal government) to 30,000 per year, by the turn of the century Quebec's French-speaking majority will be in the minority, committing "demo-linguistic suicide."

"We can't separate immigration from population growth and the health of the French-speaking majority," said Houle at the November conference.

Houle also attacked what he called "myths" used to justify higher immigration levels.

He claimed that over time, immigrants take more, on average, from social programs like unemployment insurance than they contribute in taxes, and that accepting refugees for humanitarian reasons is "insignificant" in the face of the global challenge of coping with another two billion people by 2050.

Houle had particular disdain for business groups who see higher immigration levels as a way of resolving Quebec's critical labour shortage. According to Houle, the jobs that go unfilled are undesirable and underpaid.

"Why do immigrants not take these great jobs in an abattoir or at McDonalds in Val-d'Or?" he asked sarcastically. "Because the jobs we're offering them are the ones that people here don't want."

Author Jacques Houle argues in his book Disparaître? that Quebec’s francophone majority is committing ‘collective suicide’ by allowing mass immigration.

Houle said higher immigration provides employers with a pool of cheap labour that keeps wages down and compensates for high turnover in undesirable jobs.

That argument is similar to one Legault made as he faced a firestorm of criticism from the business community for his cuts to the Quebec Experience Program last month — a program that fast-tracked foreign students and temporary workers on the path to immigration.

In the face of that barrage of criticism, those reforms were walked back, for now.

Even talking about immigration levels has become taboo, Houle told CBC.

"It's been decided, probably by political economic elites, that immigration is, per se, advantageous," he said.

He wants Quebec to lower its annual intake of immigrants to be more in line with the per-capita immigration rates in Europe and the U.S.

"This is the price to pay if we want to conserve the [linguistic] majority," Houle said.

Religious culture courses targeted

Tied in to immigration and language issues for conference delegates is a deep-seated concern about the impact of the ethics and religious culture courses (ECR) that have been mandatory in the province's schools since 2008.

The ECR program is intended to give children the skills to weigh ethical questions, understand Quebec's religious history and the broad strokes of different religious belief systems present in contemporary Quebec society, and to engage in dialogue.

The curriculum has been criticized by some as too relativistic, and it's long been a favourite punching bag for nationalists who worry the program promotes official multiculturalism.

One of those critics is Joëlle Quérin, a CEGEP teacher from Saint-Jérôme, whose 2009 paper, The Ethics and religious culture course: transmission of knowledge or indoctrination? was also published by the Institut de recherche sur le Québec.

In the essay, Quérin says the ECR course "aims explicitly to radically transform Quebec by reprogramming it with the ideological software of multiculturalism" and creates a purely civic notion of Quebec society, unmoored from history or cultural specificity.

CEGEP teacher Joëlle Quérin argues that by introducing a curriculum on ethics and comparitive religions into the schools, the province has created a generation that sees the government's ban on religious symbols as an affront to fundamental rights. (Institut de recherche sur le Québec/YouTube)

Speaking to the panel 10 years after her paper's publication, Quérin said the course's "ideological character" has been confirmed, and the damage has been done.

She cited a November 2018 Leger poll that showed what she calls the "ECR generation" is the only one that doesn't disapprove of teachers wearing religious signs. She said recent data from Radio-Canada's Vote Compass election project showed 18- to 24-year-olds are the generation most opposed to Bill 21.

Quérin says this puts Legault's government in an untenable position: on the one hand, it has adopted a law that bans religious symbols for government workers in positions of authority, but on the other hand, it continues to require students to take a course that leads many young people to believe the law is an affront to fundamental rights.

"If the premier is serious when he says, 'In Quebec, this is how we live,' maybe he should talk to his minister of education," Querin said.

What would replace multiculturalism?

Guillaume Rousseau advised the Legault government on its secularism law, Bill 21 (Simon Nakonechny/CBC) (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Rousseau, the Sherbrooke law professor, would also like to get rid of the ECR and wants to persuade the province to adopt a framework law on what he calls "cultural convergence," which he argues would be Quebec's answer to Canadian multiculturalism.

The idea, he says, would be to enshrine the notion of a common language and culture that immigrants would be encouraged to eventually adopt as their own.

"What we are saying is that there are many cultures, but one of them is very important and has a special place: French-speaking Quebec culture," Rousseau said.

He says it's not assimilation, because he sees that common culture as malleable and expects different cultural communities to add to it and alter it over time.

Rousseau also sees Bill 21 as an example of that "cultural convergence" — he points out that some Quebecers of North African descent, for example, support the bill along with the French-Canadian majority.

"We have a different way of seeing this issue in Quebec," he said, warning the rest of Canada to tone down the rhetoric against the popular law.

"I think it's just making people in Quebec feel like they should support Bill 21 even more because they're being called racist," said Rousseau.

Nationalist and proud

'The OQLF must imperatively grow some teeth,' argued lawyer François Côté, who sees the Office québécoise de la langue française as too weak. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

As the microphone cables were wrapped up and the coffee carafes carted away on Nov. 2, there was no clear consensus as to what should happen next, but a common sentiment united the divergent panelists and audience members: nationalists are slowly reconquering Quebec's political space.

The loose-knit group of academics, writers, old-school Péquistes, social democrats, immigration hawks and retirees had differed on many things, but not on Bill 21, which was seen as a symbolic affirmation of their nation's right to chart its own social course.

Having a premier who isn't ashamed to call himself a nationalist is for them more than just a way to pass legislation, it is a sign that Quebec is pushing back against the "federal regime" and its multicultural tenets.

"Sometimes the stars align," said Côté.


Simon Nakonechny is a videojournalist at CBC News Montreal. He has covered two provincial election campaigns and made audio documentaries for Ideas, The Sunday Magazine, The Doc Project and C'est la vie.