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Media Bites: Quebec's Charter Only Makes Marois More Valuable

09/05/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

So Quebec's anti-multiculturalist "Charter of Values" is popular. Can we stop acting so surprised?

The French province's supposedly controversial plan to forbid the wearing of so-called "ostentatious" religious headgear in government workplaces has been resoundingly denounced by virtually all outlets of establishment Canadian thinking. Every major newspaper editorial board has published an essay of stark opposition, and leading politicians from Queen's Park to Calgary have issued sharply-worded condemnations. Justin Trudeau even likened the proposal to the Jim Crow laws of the former Confederacy -- and in a whole deliberate speech no less, as opposed to one of those off-the-cuff comments that usually generate his best soundbites.

And yet it doesn't seem to be sticking. As our own Eric Grenier notes, Quebec's ruling separatist party has seen its popularity surge by the double-digits since details of their Charter first leaked to the press last week, with the Charter itself enjoying greater public support (58 per cent) than any politician or party altogether. In the more enlightened ROC, meanwhile, the part of the country that's constantly told to regard Quebec's unique brand of assimilationist politics as a troubling outlier from the Canadian multicultural norm, public disapproval of the Charter has been, to quote Eric, "not to the extent some had perhaps expected."

According to the Forum Research group, the idea of "legislation outlawing religious clothing and symbols such as hijabs, turbans and skullcaps from being worn by public employees" earns the support of 40 per cent of Ontarians, 39 per cent of Albertans, and 35 per cent of British Columbians, as well as 49 per cent of Tory voters and 39 per cent of Greens and NDPers.

While it should be noted that opposition to the plan hovers around 50 per cent among all all the above demographics (except Alberta Conservatives), it should also be remembered that controlling 39 per cent of the voter base is still enough to win a comfortable parliamentary majority in this country. The idea that Canadians want a government that will implement a heavy-handed, Quebec-style assimilate-or-get-out agenda is certainly vastly more plausible than the idea we want Elizabeth May as our prime minister, and look how much time everyone spends discussing that.

It can't be denied that Quebec's charter is a product of extremist thinking. Though one of its motives may the mild desire that immigrants should "fit in" and tone-down their third world charms, an equally important co-purpose is the traditionally French idea of laïcité, an untranslatable concept, which, as Colby Cosh notes in Maclean's, is fairly exotic unto itself. While Anglo-American liberalism has come to champion a philosophy that places a postmodern ideal of non-judgmental, universalist moral equivalency at its core, in which all nations, cultures, religions, identities, lifestyles, and belief systems are equally respectable, French leftists, both in Canada and real France, still cling to the more old fashioned idea of objective right-and-wrongs. Religion, for instance, is objectively wrong to most French leftists; it's oppressive and superstitious and sexist and homophobic and all the rest. Thus, while Anglo liberal feminists might bend over backwards to find a non-judgemental way to interpret the burka as a possibly "empowering" thing we ignorant westerners just don't understand, their French equivalents would be more inclined to unapologetically judge a wearable woman-shame tent on its face, and outlaw it altogether.

The curious thing about this perspective, however, is how neatly it finds common cause in the moderate conservatism of English Canada, and its equal, if not always identical, anxiousness about the downsides of diversity.

Thanks to the Harper administration's record-high intake of immigrants over the last seven years -- largely from Asia and the Middle East -- Anglo-Canada's big cities are ghettoizing with exponential speed. There are sprawling neighborhoods in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere where very little English (or French) is spoken -- even among native-born children and teens -- where shops and restaurants make little subtlety about only desiring a certain kind of clientele, where the biggest celebrations of the year involve commemorating the deeds of politicians and preachers on the other side of the world, and where the only news worth following unfolds hundreds of miles away.

To even observe this sort of stuff openly is supposed to be untoward, but alas, it's reality. And it breeds resentment. Not out of racism or bigotry, but simply because it's tremendously difficult to imagine Canada continuing to survive as a functional nation-state (as opposed to a balkanized collection of self-governing ethnic enclaves) when vast swaths of our population can't speak to each other, don't want to eat and shop at the same places, and can't share any sort of common cultural experience unless we happen to also share the same (very recent) place of origin.

Quebec's Charter of Values, like their equally uncompromising language laws, may be clumsy and represent an unconstitutional exertion of state power to micromanage the lives of individuals, but they also represent an effort to formulate at least some sort of political response to the real and growing ethnic and linguistic fracturing of this country born from several decades of ill-conceived immigration policy. And for that, the province gets an "A" for effort from a sizable chunk of their Canadian peers.

I was on a CBC chat show the other day and was asked why, if all this is true, our politicians and media continue to puff their chests with such unified righteous fury whenever Quebec strays from the diversity-is-strength line. My only response was that there are apparently a lot of powerful people in this country who are in some state of tremendous denial about what modern Canada is actually like to live in, and are instead almost spiritually invested in this idea that Canadians inhabit the world's most inspiring, perfect example of a flawlessly multicultural mosaic, of which only cranks and racists could possibly find fault.

The trouble is, as Quebec's ex-premier Bernard Landry noted the other day, citing the experience of Europe, if you delegate all critical discussion of an important matter like multiculturalism exclusively to cranks and racists, it becomes increasingly likely that cranks and racists will gain greater influence in your democratic system, simply because they're the only ones permitted to say what the people want to hear.

That's another "surprise" Canada may soon have to confront.

Quebec Religious Headwear Ban