My father arrived in Canada in 1959 with nothing but a suitcase and a few dollars in his pocket. Even his suit was a loaner. His first job was as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where a sign above the sink threatened: “You break a dish, I break your head.”
He spoke neither French nor English, but was a hard worker, ambitious, and possessed the relentless drive and one-track mind of an immigrant who knows he has nothing to go back to. The ‘60s and ‘70s were times of opportunity and his MO was simple: you worked hard, you succeeded. You made money, raised a family, provided a home, build a life.
My father’s been here 53 years and his name, just like Djemila Benhabib’s, would probably be a tongue twister for phonetically-challenged Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay, but at what point would it be ok, do you think, for him to have a say in how government policies – which ultimately affect his life here as a citizen - are shaped?
No one needs to remind me that the despicably xenophobic and ignorant comments made by Tremblay don’t represent the majority of Quebecers. I was happy to see so many verbally flog him for making them. At the same time, horrified to see so many who rose to his defense and attempted to justify what he said. I believe it’s high time for us as a society to stop burying our heads in the sand and admit that we, too, have a problem here.
Civilisation is hideously fragile. There are always simmering tensions when you scratch beneath the surface. Xenophobia is certainly not the prerogative of backwards politicians in Herouxville and Saguenay. It’s a universal constant, waiting to appear when the politics of division and the blame game begin. But it only rears its ugly head when you feed it. The PQ proposal to introduce a Quebec Secularism Chapter has done just that.
This misguided attempt to “protect” Quebec’s heritage is doubly insulting. First off, it implies that this province’s culture, language, and history are so frail and delicate that they constantly need propping up and protection against the constant onslaught of “les invasions barbares”, and second, it attempts to introduce a selective cafeteria-style secularism, where the government gets to pick and choose what’s allowed and what isn’t.
This staunch commitment to secularism is inconsistent and hypocritical to say the least. One can hardly demand that visible symbols of one’s faith are limited and/or removed from public places, while a gigantic cross still looms over the City of Montreal and a cross hangs on the walls of the National Assembly. If we want to preach secularism, it should be all or nothing. Don’t just purge some religious symbols, while protecting others. That’s not secularism; that’s discrimination!
One can hardly demand that visible symbols of one’s faith are limited and/or removed from public places, while a gigantic cross still looms over the City of Montreal and a cross hangs on the walls of the National Assembly.
As an atheist, I believe in the separation of church and state, but have no problem with religious symbols in public life. Your faith and the ways you visibly choose to display it (whether with a cross, a yarmulke, or a hijab) doesn’t affect my life. If people claim to be offended or disturbed by these symbols, it speaks more to their prejudices than the person perpetrating the “offense.”
Unfortunately, the PQ’s proposal has created the kind of toxic environment where statements like the one made by Tremblay find fertile ground to grow. The debate over whether the cross should remain in the National Assembly has become nothing more than a state-sanctioned rant by old-stock Quebecers, reminiscing about the gold ol' days.
We can analyze, question, complain, project and vilify all we want, (and Tremblay instantaneously became a convenient scapegoat for all political parties and their self-serving agendas) but the simple truth is this: while the overwhelming majority of Quebecers are co-existing in peace with one another, racism, xenophobia and intolerance are still rampant, and need to be addressed head on, and most importantly, with unyielding honesty.
It's absurd that immigrants are being wooed to this province because the birth rate is perilously low and then are looked upon suspiciously because they don't look or act like those who got here first. Quebec will never advance, mature, or reach its full potential by adhering to some sort of antiquated and perverted version of squatter’s rights. Tolerance and acceptance of another’s culture does not equate to rejection of your own.