Friday, November 09, 2007

Pauline Marois, the PQ's "Quebec Identity Bill" and Divided Strategies on the Radical Left

Pauline Marois: white woman on a mission

On October 18 Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois proposed a new piece of legislation, Bill 195, the "Quebec Identity Act."

This piece of legislation would create two classes of citizen within Quebec. You would have Canadian citizens, and then within this group you would have a second set, those who would pass a French exam and pledge allegiance to the Quebec nation.

Only those in this separate group would have the right to run in provincial, municipal and school board elections, or address petitions to the national assembly. Obviously, once this second tier of citizenship was established it could be tied to any number of other rights or privileges.

A bit of background perhaps...

For those from elsewhere: Pauline Marois is the head of the Parti Quebecois, which has revolved through the provincial government in Quebec (taking turns with the Liberals) for over thirty years now. When i was growing up people still talked about the PQ as if it were a progressive party, and many leftists a generation older than me still feel that way. And at one point in time there was some truth to this, as the PQ combined social democracy with an officially unracist nationalism.

(Of course, there were those who were clear on the actually racist underpinnings of the nationalist project, and the bankruptcy of social democracy, even back in the seventies.)

The PQ jettisoned social democracy early on, but continued to pay it lip service whenever this helped to rally the troops. It similarly rejected those separatist strategies which would upset the North American capitalist applecart - the PQ when first elected disappointed many people by not declaring independence, rather it would hold referenda asking for a specific mandate to "enter into negotiations" on the subject, or else later to establish a "sovereign" state which would retain all of the colonialist and capitalist hallmarks of the present "un-sovereign" one.

This watering down of both the left-wing and separatist elements in the party led to further confusion between these two different aspects of its program, and to the development of a "left" within the party which saw its "leftism" as having as much to do with being more nationalistic as with being more committed to social democracy or "socialism".

All of which is in a sense irrelevant, or at least of purely historical interest at this point.

The year two thousand and seven can be seen as a turning point, a watershed of sorts in Quebec politics, as certain (decades old) changes in the class structure and the demographic balance finally found their corresponding political expression.

The PQ, which has at all times since the early seventies been either the government or the official opposition, was relegated to being a third rate rump party in the spring elections. Under the blandly center-right leadership of Andre Boisclair, the endless watering down of its nationalist content and the final erasure of its left-wing pretensions brought about the predictable results, as the party was eclipsed by the more openly and honestly right-wing and xenophobic ADQ.

Following the March elections, which were preceded by a wave of media-instigated racism around the "reasonable accommodation" soap opera, the PQ was confronted with a necessity to act, and act boldly, or risk permanent eclipse.

Boisclair resigned, and longtime party-insider Pauline Marois - who had already failed in two previous attempts to run for party leader - won the leadership by acclamation.

The task immediately confronting Marois's PQ has been to win back voters who had drifted to the ADQ, and the way in which this is to be achieved is to further imitate the latter. So it is that "sovereignty" has been put on the back burner, replaced with the same amorphous, and essentially racist, concept of nationalism as that put forward by Dumont's ADQ.

What we have seen since has been a calculated and deliberately public embrace of xenophobia, a public relations strategy of which Bill 195 is simply the latest and most obvious example.

Marois racist "Quebec Identity Bill" has been denounced privately and publicly by all manner of establishment voiceboxes. Including many longtime PQ supporters. It has been declared illegal, unconstitutional, unacceptable and a betrayal of all kinds of things good people hold dear.

In conversation, many point to the surrounding context of the racist reasonable accommodation hearings, and say that given this context, now is certainly not the time for any such piece of divisive legislation.

Which is a really curious criticism, if you think about it.

Marois obviously put forward this piece of racist legislation because of the surrounding "reasonable accommodation" shit. She is well aware of what she is doing: riding the wave. The fact that "to ride a wave" in politics is also to contribute to it, is no skin off her back.

The criticism that "this is not the time" begs a certain question, namely when would the right time be to legally establish two classes of citizenship?

This confusion says something about the mixed up ideas and unfinished thoughts which make up the left of the nationalist project, or also those leftists whose understanding of nationalism bleeds into sympathy.

The particular kind of racism which has popped up all over Quebec this past year bears perverted witness to changes in the class structure of Quebec and changing meaning of nationalism here over the past forty years. What has been going on is an example of what we discussed last August, the way in which "Quebecois nationhood" plays a role in people's consciousness similar to "whiteness" in the united states, and as such racism is the likely response to social crises and tensions:
But where this increasing similarity is relevant is that white Québecois – and most especially nationalists – are liable to resist this globalized capitalism in ways that have more in common with white US workers than with the radical labour movement of the 70s. (Never mind the Patriotes!) Pat Buchanan-style, not Malcolm X-style, if you know what i mean: with an increased openness to racist demagogy and national chauvinism. Even (or perhaps especially) amongst people who admire Che, loathe Bush, and consider themselves to be social-democrats or even “socialists.”
Today the mandate to put immigrants in their place, to "let them know who's boss", runs like a knife through every political grouping, of both left and right. Quietly, often unreported in the media, and loudly, with banner headlines, individuals and groups are positioning and repositioniing themselves around this question, conveniently labeled "reasonable accommodation."

Marois has risked alienating many of the PQ's longtime supporters, but it's a risk she is wise to take. The PQ can't survive indefinitely on nostalgia for the Quebec nationalism of thirty years ago. It can't attract voters based on what their class interests used to be.

Chances are most who are scandalized by Marois' bill will continue to support the PQ anyway. And among those broad swathes of society who have come to identify more and more with a certain style of racism, the PQ can only gain.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of her proposal, a Leger marketing poll clearly showed how she had played her cards right: 35% felt she was the leader who best defended the "Quebecois identity" (as opposed to 30% for Dumont and 18% for Charest) and 52% of francophones supported Bill 195 (38% opposed).

On the left, two different anti-racist positions seem to exist in regards to the ongoing "reasonable accommodation" racism. For want of better terms, let's call them the "anti-racism through secularism" and the "pluralist anti-racism" positions.

"anti-racism through secularism" position has been adopted by certain people in NEFAC, and in l'aut journal, and in the historically "progressive" sections of the nationalist movement.

Noting that the "reasonable accommodation" brouhaha centers on religious practices of certain racialized groups, these people argue that the best way to defuse the rise in racism is to expose it for what it is. They propose doing this by insisting on greater secularism in all spheres of life and for all religions. These people agree that Islam, Judaism and Hinduism should not be catered to, but wish to deracialize the issue by also insisting that Christianity be pushed out of the public sphere. Muslim women not allowed to wear hijab, Jews not allowed to wear kippa, Sikhs not allowed to wear a turban, Christians not allowed to wear a crucifix, etc.

This position, spelled out for instance in some of the comments left on my blog here,
is an organic expression of the historical secularism of the Quebecois left, a direct consequence of the role the church had in propping up corrupt and oppressive governments for 150 years in this province. It also caries with it the imprimatur of the Quebecois feminist movement, which is very much the sister of the left nationalist movement that emerged here in the 1960s.

The second anti-racist position, that of "pluralist anti-racism", has been elaborated by the (maoist) Revolutionary Communist Party and various anti-authoritarian groups based in Montreal like Solidarity Across Borders and No One Is Illegal, who just today spelled out their position condemning (amongst other things), the fact that "
so-called progressives and feminists have used the [Bouchard-Taylor] Commission platform to promote their own sophisticated brand of racism."

The pluralist position
challenges without compromise the idea that the State or para-state institutions like trade unions or school boards should have any power to regulate or control how immigrants (or anyone else) expresses their culture or religious feelings. The pluralist position does not actually state that concerns about religious fundamentalism and sexism are red herrings, but at the same time it does not address these.

Despite the serious differences between these two positions, it is striking how little debate or criticism there has been between them. This is an example of the fragmentation of the radical left, and even of the anarchist section thereof, where the "pluralist" camp is very much based in Montreal, and seems to have weak ties to the francophone working class.

The "anti-racism through secularism" position strikes me as wrongheaded through and through. It seems to be a case of instrumentalizing racism rather than opposing it outright. i write that knowing some people who hold this position, and knowing them to be sincere comrades and anti-racists. But this is a point on which we disagree.

Mario Dumont and the ADQ rode the wave while making it, and did so to great success this spring, catapulting the "fringe" party into the center of Quebec politics. Pauline Marois has shown that she understands how this game is played, she has upped the ante, and unlike those mired in the past she's giving the ADQ a run for their money - and she may just come out ahead.

These people are neither stupid not confused. Opposing them is our task. We need to move in that direction.


  1. NEFAC indeed does not have a unified position on the issue and we did not have a chance to have a face-to-face meeting to discuss the whole issue. While working on the latest issue of our paper we flirted with the idea of an open debate in our pages but finaly could not reach a consensus. Instead, we published two other pieces, both written by Quebec city anarchists (here and there). I fail to see what's the problem with these.

    * * *

    Now, I suspect you are talking about me... So here's my --personal-- fullfledge position .

    * * *

    Now Karl, I'm curious about what you are proposing we do in the real world.

    See, in the real world, the catholic religion was only kicked out of the schools recently. Next year will be the first time ever the catholic faith will not be teached in the Quebec public schools. To me this is a progress.

    There is currently a mobilisation against this. About a thousand catholics demonstrated a month ago for a parent right to choose. They claim to represent a majority (80% of the parents where indeed sending their kids to religious education classes instead of moral, despite the fact that only 15% of them actually go to church). How the hell am I supposed to argue with the parents in my daughter school? Religion is ok for immigrants but not "for us" (because that's what they say!)?

    What do I do with the people who are circulating a petition to get the pope to visit Quebec city for the 400th anniversary?

    What do I do with people who say that the catholic church is an integral part of our identity and, from there, are asking for all sort of new and old priviledges for the church? Who will soon want us to abide by their moral standard?

    * * *

    I my downtown riding one adult out of four of five voted for the ADQ. It's easy to ignore them. But in all the surrounding riding --where most of the working class actualy live-- it's one adult out of two or three. They *are* the new majority. The problem is, there are the same people we need to be convincing and mobilising if we want to make a revolution.

    On the face of it, what you are proposing offer absolutely *no* path of intervention and is clearly a recipe for disaster and complete marginalisation.

    * * *

    What are the people not living in Montreal are suppose to do (and even those in Montreal if we judge on the poll among francophones...)?

    * * *

    BTW... No one is proposing that Muslim women not allowed to wear hijab, Jews not allowed to wear kippa, Sikhs not allowed to wear a turban, Christians not allowed to wear a crucifix, etc. What is being proposed is that the state and state employees be neutral.

  2. Hey Nicolas,
    You're right - i was thinking of you :)

    And i don't have any problem with either of the pieces published in Cause Commune, though considering the weight of this issue at the moment i was surprised there was not more about this.

    Leaving aside the question of NEFAC's position, from conversations i have had with a number of people on the left, my impression is that the position i described as "anti-racism through secularism" is held by many. Certainly it is rampant in groups like Quebec Solidaire and in the "left-wing" of the PQ, and as you noted it has the support of important trade unionists.

    So it's worth going into a bit more detail about what my problem is (and isn't) with it.

    First off, i have not heard of anybody arguing on the basis of "reasonable accommodation" that there should be religion classes in public schools. There is no double standard with Catholicism here. i am guessing the "religious culture and ethics" classes which are replacing the religious option will be like the enseignement morale classes i took as a kid - they're not going to be Buddhist or Hindu theology.

    If the other parents at your daughters school say differently i would suggest talking to them, and telling them this. Take a look at the curriculum.

    Most of the anxieties around reasonable accommodation are not only based on inconsistent and racist arguments, but they are also based on plain incorrect information. Our first task when dealing with people on an individual basis should be defuse things as much as possible by pointing out the real facts.

    As for a "neutral State", meaning a secular one, obviously that is to be preferred to a religious state.

    But does the state cease to be secular because some civil servant is wearing a turban? i mean, does it cease to be secular because it employs individuals who are religious, and who are allowed to express this within limits?

    Whatever these limits may be, i don't think the State becomes less secular because of the clothes an individual may wear.

    Christianity has its own rules and lack thereof, its own culture, its own feel. It is as distinct and odd and imaginative as any other religion. Some of the antagonism towards displays of other people's beliefs is because they jar, because they are out of the ordinary in many communities. While the idea that there is a statutory holiday on December 25th, or that people in monogamous relationships wear rings on their fingers, or that someone chooses to wear black because they are in mourning - all of this is just "normal".

    But the fact is that by doing these "normal" things one is expressing one's own specific culture, and these traditions often have religious origins. Telling people if they have public sector jobs they are not allowed to wear a hijab or turban is the same as banning any of the practices in the preceding paragraph. Which just isn't going to happen - it would cut too close to the bone.

    We both know that the State is never "neutral": it is the instrument of a particular class, and it is also a tool of recuperation and integration into a particular society. Its religiosity is not of a different order than its ethnicity - Duplessis' "Catholic State" would have nothing to envy Marois' State based on "Quebecois Identity".

    While Marois Bill 195 has a snowball's chance in hell of ever becoming law, she has read the tea leaves right, and knows the question is of who has a claim on the State, which culture does it promote, who gets tightly regulated.

    In a society which experiences its secularism in a deeply (post-)Catholic manner, making the entire public service "secular" in the way you propose would not effect everyone equally. Not wearing a crucifix may be a personal affront, but its not a violation of any kind of Catholic taboo. Most Christians don't wear crucifixes, and there is not even a putative religious basis for doing so, it is simply a fashion decision.

    Many racists - even Christian fundamentalists - would gladly take off their little necklace if they knew they could then demand the school teacher or lawyer wearing a hijab be disciplined or fired. Nothing would make them happier.

    The "anti-racism through secularism" position is to ban these things "only" from the public service. (Which includes not only bureaucrats but also school-teachers, receptionists, janitors, garbage collectors, etc.) But this will be interpreted as a green light to then ban these people from privately held companies. From sports clubs. From classrooms. From movie cinemas.

    Not that a ban from the public sector would mandate these things, but it would make it very difficult to resist them. Of course there would never be a blanket ban, it would simply be left to the discretion of the boss. Or perhaps occasionally there would be a union action in some particularly racist work places (we have already seen that kind of shit between workers who speak different languages.)

    The girls banned from participating in taekwondo competitions, and soccer matches, because some of their team-mates wore headscarves - it's a sign of things to come. The question is, on whose side will the left stand?

    Obviously, i would prefer a group take no position at all rather than line up with those instituting these bans.

    But apart from that, what do i suggest?

    i admit: i don't have any brilliant plan, and what i can suggest is meager and insufficient... but here it is for a start:

    1. Information
    Many people who are currently outraged at all the "horrible privileges" immigrants have are reacting to distorted information.

    In other cases, people are misinformed about the cultures and religions they are criticizing.

    Simple popular education, explaining what a kirpan is or why there is a "Jewish General Hospital", can help alleviate some of the tension. Explaining the facts in some of the "scandalous" cases can in fact make people see the real scandal as being the dishonest way the mass media has spun events.

    The RCP's newspaper insert on the subject (which i can't find online) is a good example of this kind of intervention.

    2. Analysis
    We need to explain this rise in xenophobia. We need to explain how it relates to changes in the class structure of Quebec, and how it relates to changes in the global division of labour and the current "war on terror" hullabaloo.

    We need to do this in a way that facilitates a break between people's own identity and that of the State. I.e. tailored to popular intervention, to addressing one's interests as a woman, as a queer person, as a disabled person, as a person with a shit job in a neighbourhood being taken over by yuppies... explaining how one's interests are ill-served by capitalism, and showing the common ground with sections of the new immigrant working class.

    We also need to elaborate an analysis for ourselves. An analysis of what has happened in Quebec society over the past forty years and what is happening right now. A discussion which goes beyond talking about neo-liberalism and tries to break down the different class forces in the various regions of Quebec and how they relate to each other, and how they relate to the current rise in xenophobia.

    Most importantly, we need to understand the divisions within the Quebecois working class. Not to simply bemoan these and call for "unity", but to understand which sections of the class will be the most prone to rejecting the current wave of bullshit, which sections will find it easiest to see through the mystification of the "Quebecois Nation".

    3. Intervention in the Quebecois Working Class
    i imagine there's no argument here, especially from someone in NEFAC, but i want to mention this point because it seems to be a critical weakness of some of those groups which i designated as "pluralist anti-racist".

    As we have discussed elsewhere, sections of the Quebecois working class have benefited, but other sections have been hurt by changes over the past decades. One problem with most (but not all) left-wing groups which have intervened on this terrain is that they have been more than happy to funnel working class discontent into support for a putatively "progressive" national project.

    These groups bear some responsibility for the current sorry state of affairs, their work over the past decades having effectively deepened the chasm between white francophone workers and the new immigrant working class. (Thank you l'aut journal!)

    As opposed to this, simply doing consistent work around "anti-poverty" issues while remaining hostile to nationalist ideology is in and of itself a good first step. If these activists and groups were to take an unambiguous public stand against the current wave of disingenuous bullshit, it would be a good step forward out of this mess.


    finally, regarding an issue touched upon by Nicolas: how does a white Quebecois guy struggle against resurgent Catholicism while also arguing in favour of immigrants' right to practice their religion?

    My answer is that this is one point where an anti-authoritarian approach comes in handy.

    People can only liberate themselves. And people have to be able to define what that means for themselves.

    There is a world of difference between a woman from a Muslim family saying she will not wear hijab, or a Jew saying he will not eat kosher, and a schoolteacher or cop or one's manager or union rep. saying that you are not allowed to do this.

    The anarchist canon is full of observations about one having to free oneself, about the exercise of authority itself perverting any "good intentions" one may have. This is not all claptrap, and is in fact one of the few areas where i think the anarchist tradition is right on the mark.

  3. Well, here's links to Marc Ouellette intervention in the commission. Le cardinal dénonce le vide and Le Québec connaît un vide spirituel, selon le cardinal Ouellet. This is typical of the regular public intervention of the guy (on homosexuality, abortion, wedding, etc.) who are often making front page news. Every intervention is followed by a wave of letters in the newspapers.

    As for religion in schools. They are indeed teaching the basic of five major religion and one of the beef that catholics have against it is that their religion will be on an equal footing with others.

    It's not just catholicism, it's the whole issue of rightwing politics. My issue is how do we deal with the rise of the right and, especialy, those soft, new supporters of the rightwing. You know, these are not far away. Some members of the community group I work for are actually considering these ideas...

  4. The RCP's newspaper insert on the subject (which i can't find online)...

    It's available here.

    By the way, does anybody here have more details about the No One is Illegal's plans for the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Montreal? I heard there might be a demo, but I haven't found anything online about that so far.

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