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Think of Quebec Politics As a Window Into Foreign Culture

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Polite convention dictates that we're supposed to imagine a great deal of difference between separatist and non-separatist governments in Quebec -- regardless of how much actually exists.

The new Liberal administration of Premier Philippe Couillard was understood to be more open-minded on language issues than his PQ predecessor, for instance. Yet just the other day it was announced that his justice department plans to appeal a recent court ruling allowing large corporate retail chains to call themselves by non-French names in the province.

That sort of hysterically small-minded French-supremacism -- driving large, job-heavy businesses like Walmart and Best Buy from Quebec unless they change their signage to read, I don't know, le Mart du Wal or Purchasé Superior or whatever -- is a good example of the sort of stuff that you'd probably have thought was on the way out under Monsieur Couillard if you got all your news from the nations' editorial pages. Couillard's Liberals, after all, were endlessly praised as the party of sanity and common sense in the face of separatist extremism, just as Premier Charest's Liberals were prior to that. It was the Charest government, however, that began the crusade against English-named retail corporations back in 2011, just as the Liberal administration prior to that was the one that evoked the notwithstanding clause to impose unconstitutionally draconian French-only signage laws in the first place.

As I've noted before, Quebec's political centre of gravity is so far to the nationalist fringe, the province's two main parties differ more on style and tactics than underlying philosophy. Liberal premiers may be cooler with Canadian flags in the lobby of what both parties have agreed to call the "national assembly," but that doesn't mean they're any less devoted to the famous cry of the early nationalist leader Lionel Groulx: "we shall have our French state!"

It therefore shouldn't come as much surprise that the Couillard administration would have no problem reviving another ugly trope of national pride naive ROC'ers probably considered long-buried. As Don McPherson reported in Thursday's Montreal Gazette, Premier Couillard's government is expected to "soon" re-introduce legislation of the sort that turned his predecessor's separatist government into such a national pariah -- a chauvinistic charter of "secularism."

In fairness to the Premier, Couillard's charter will be significantly milder than the PQ's -- which recent leaks have revealed was probably unconstitutional in its extremism. Though again, that may be damning with faint praise when we consider how Quebec tends to measure "mild."

In contrast to the PQ charter, which banned the wearing of all types of Muslim headgear from all government employees, Couillard will only ban three types of Muslim headgear from all government employees -- including the chador, which doesn't even cover the face. The difference between a chador-style headscarf and its slightly shorter counterpart the hijab, can sometimes be hard to distinguish, so I guess in Couillard's Quebec Muslim civil servants can soon look forward to their bosses breaking out the measuring tape.

McPherson writes that Couillard is also planning to affix a "hierarchy of rights" to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (which of course is a thing that exists), with the right to a secular state and female equality henceforth taking precedent over lesser values like freedom of belief and expression. The weird rituals of devout bureaucrats will still be tolerated, but if their traditions or moral beliefs conflict with government orders, legislation "would place the burden of proof on an individual requesting an accommodation to show that the accommodation is 'necessary' rather than on the body receiving the request to show that it is unreasonable."

This sounds vague, and it is. In the past, Couillard has peddled the convenient line that such sticky accommodation disputes -- what holidays can be taken off, what conscientious objections are reasonable, what displayed iconography is permissible -- should simply be resolved by the managers and bosses of the departments in question, a position which keeps the Premier's hands clean while offering a sort of wink-wink to senior bureaucrats who would like to impose zero-tolerance standards for religious flaunting.

Can a cop wear a turban, the CBC asked Couillard back in January. "He can ask," the Liberal boss replied.

Though the non-Quebec media enjoyed pushing a simplistic narrative in the last election wherein Quebec's Liberals were constantly framed as the "tolerant" party in contrast to the bigoted separatists, the two were never really that polarized. Just as it was the Liberals who began the crusade against English-named businesses, it was the Quebec Liberals who opened the whole "reasonable accommodation" can of worms back in 2007 with the establishment of the famed $3-million Bouchard-Taylor royal commission on the matter, a commission whose generally anti-religious recommendations then inspired Quebec's first aggressively "pro-secular" legislative initiative -- a ban on government employees from providing services to Muslims with excessively-covered faces.

That might not strike you as the most extreme thing in the world, but it certainly got the larger ball rolling, first over what else covered Muslim women shouldn't be allowed to do, and then what could be done to prevent "ostentatiously" religious folk in general from undermining the Quebec Nation's pretences of being a purely atheistic state. The same woman who pushed that first bill, incidentally -- multiculturalism minister Kathleen Weil -- is now back in cabinet and tasked with the broader mandate of implementing secularism in general.

Among establishment-minded thinkers, Phillipe Couillard's election last month was greeted with what can only be described as storybook euphoria. The White Knight Liberals had slain the wicked dragon-lady separatist, betrothed fair maiden Quebec, and rode off happily into the shining sunset of tranquility and tolerance. Yet after less than a month in office, the Couillard administration is already making mockery of such myopia.

Quebec politics is best grasped not as a black-and-white morality play, but a window into a foreign culture dominated by chauvinistic policy discussions that would simply not be permitted elsewhere in the country.

It's a place we understand by not understanding it.