THE BLOG

Don't Blame Mosque Attack On Myth Of A 'Racist Quebec'

02/15/2017 02:13 EST | Updated 02/15/2017 08:50 EST

On Sunday, January 29, a young sympathizer of the racist far right burst into the Great Mosque in Quebec City. Just after the prayer, the place of worship was crowded and the terrorist killed six family fathers. The Muslim community in the province of Quebec, with more than 200,000 adherents, expressed its fears, its indignation and its sadness to the people of Quebec and Canada whose tributes of contrition and solidarity are unprecedented.

mosque shooting

A man attends a tribute to victims killed at a Quebec City mosque, in front of the Embassy of Canada in Rabat Feb. 6, 2017. (Photo: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Quebec is a Canadian province with a large majority of descendants of French settlers from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Conquered in 1760 and ceded by France to the British Crown in 1763, Nouvelle-France left in America a community known to be rather progressive, ecological, egalitarian and welcoming. In terms of promoting and defending its cultural and linguistic identity, however, its voices are much less harmonious. Although in Quebec French is spoken by a vast majority, the linguistic issue has been in the news for 50 years, and between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of voters say they are in favour of Quebec's independence.

Quebec counts 8 million people, and welcomes about 50,000 immigrants every year. Many of them are received as refugees or are simply misinformed, which poses challenges in terms of linguistic, cultural and economic integration, but Quebecers generally welcome them generously and cordially. As elsewhere, radical Islamic terrorism has stigmatized a community of Muslims who are better integrated than many others, particularly because many of them speak French. As with all immigration, the recognition of diplomas obtained abroad is an important issue. It should be noted that no Muslim immigrant ever exhibited a terrorist gesture in Quebec.

How can each political party serve the common good without hurting the preferences of its electoral base?

As elsewhere, a highly competitive media apparatus and partisan politics have exacerbated tensions between, in general, the Francophone majority of Catholic descent and some of the linguistic minorities of various denominations. How can we ensure the harmonious integration of immigrants into Quebec society? What part of the approach should be based on coercion and what part on incentives? How can each political party serve the common good without hurting the preferences of its electoral base?

The secularism of the state; the wearing of religious symbols in the state space and the public space; prohibition of the wearing of religious clothing covering the face during certain civil activities and gestures; recognition of diplomas obtained abroad; teaching language; and religious accommodations in the workplace are some of the issues that are debated with, in the fight against radicalization and international terrorism.

Interculturalism, multicuralism and separatism

We are already witnessing an ideological recovery of the Quebec drama, charges against Quebec nationalists and what they call "interculturalism." Interculturalism is not a very clear notion, but it can be defined as multiculturalism with a desire on the part of the host society to see immigrants adopt certain consensual values: French as a common language, primacy of law, secularism of the state, equality for gender, sexual orientations, religions and origins.

Yet, the consensus in Quebec may not at all satisfy all of Canada, which is primarily multiculturalist and Anglophone. We read in the Washington Posta charge against Quebec in general which, according to the commentator and cartoonist J. J. McCullough of Vancouver, would conceal undern a progressive outlook a deep and dark racism. As proof: the number of attacks that are perpetrated in Quebec! While it is true that, in all proportion, there have been more of these acts of violence in Quebec than in Canada, there might have been much less, always in proportion, than in the United States.

october crisis quebec

A soldier stands guard during the 1970 October Crisis. Reaction extended well beyond Quebec. (Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Modern Quebec knew its first terrorist trauma when the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a British diplomat and killed a Quebec minister during the October Crisis in 1970. Mr. McCullough does not hesitate to speak of anti-Semitic and pro-fascist feelings, and to confuse hate crimes of a sexist nature in educational institutions, attacks perpetrated by "lone wolves" without terrorist and organized supervision, including that of Quebec City, and two attacks against sovereigntist leaders which failed but cost several lives: against the government of René Lévesque in the National Assembly in 1984 and against Premier Pauline Marois in 2012. This tote serves his words: it is Quebec itself that, racist and intolerant -- separatist, moreover -- proves the melting pot of all the violence.

In its defence, the debate on identity -- which many assimilate to ethnic nationalism -- has led to abuse of the language of progressive, yet soundly concerned leaders about integration issues. Add to it the spectacular and irresponsible diatribes of commentators in the media and the debauchery that has become habitual on social networks, and we cannot exclude conditions that are favorable to the emergence of a weak mind that takes action.

Should the media and politicians be held accountable? This would seem much exaggerated even if the awareness of the excesses would have been welcome before the drama within an immigrant community among the most integrated and in a city notoriously peaceful (the last homicide in Quebec City goes back a year and a half).

It would be false and irresponsible to claim that Quebec and the separatists within it are racist or Islamophobes.

In this fiery discussion, and often in an interested manner, the notions of immigration, Islam, radicalization, terrorism, secularism of the state and gender equality are confused. In Quebec, this debate adds to the polarization that persists between the independents and the Canadian federalists.

At the heart of this confrontation, immigration is heavily instrumentalized. Quebecers of immigrant background are not very familiar with the linguistic and constitutional debate in Quebec. It is in Canada, and even in Northern America, that they think they have come, so they adhere more to federalism. A significant number of them express a preference for integration into the English-speaking linguistic and economic community for similar reasons. Among nationalists and sovereigntists, immigration is therefore associated with the strengthening of federalism by the increasing force of numbers.

immigrants quebec

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard (2nd L) presents a teddy bear to Syrian refugee in Montreal, Quebec, Dec. 12, 2015. (Photo: Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Important measures have been devised to positively welcome immigrants into Quebec society. However, the official language is French and the reception is accompanied by binding rules laid down by linguistic laws or, at the cultural and institutional level, a draft Charter of Values which, perhaps wrongly, and despite its failure, has contributed to Associating the sovereigntist movement with a certain ethnic nationalism.

This ethnic nationalism does in fact exist. The author of the Quebec attack claimed it. It prospers, but only at the very fringes of society and does not nourish a far right comparable to what is seen in France, elsewhere in Europe and even in America. There are racists and Islamophobes in Quebec and even within the sovereigntist movement. However, it would be false and irresponsible to claim that Quebec and the separatists within it are racist or Islamophobes. No one seriously asserts that sovereigntist parties are racist or Islamophobic.

Irreconcilable differences

History explains the difference between multicultural Canada and interculturalism in Quebec. The United States, Canada and Quebec are immigration lands. However, at the time of its conquest by force, and still today, the French-Canadian nation, now the People of Quebec, is the only one in America where almost everybody speaks a language other than English and exhibits a common, homogeneous set of cultural and historical traits.

In a more or less hostile way, it is normal for a majority to want recognition and adoption by minorities of its language, its institutions and often its religion. It was to assimilate them and dispose of their lands that the Acadians were deported to Louisiana. Lord Durham -- a British nobleman dispatched to Quebec, then Lower Canada, in 1839 by the British Parliament to understand the French and Catholic resilience and legendary fertility -- wholeheartedly wished French Canadians to assimilate to the Anglo-Saxon culture.

lord durham

Lord Durham is best remembered for his service in Canada where he was Governor General. (Digital restoration by Steven Wynn Photography via Getty Images)

Ironically, it is the French Canadians who assimilated thousands of Irish and Scots. Quebecers of French descent are a minority in English Canada and a majority in French Quebec. More than one million of them migrated to the northeastern U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century and became fully integrated.

Pierre Trudeau was the father of the current prime minister of Canada. During his flamboyant passage to the head of the country, he institutionalized Canadian multiculturalism in particular by adding a Charter of rights and freedoms to the Canadian Constitution. Thirty-five years later, Quebec still has not agreed to the terms of the Canadian Constitution. An actual effect of this doctrine is the passage of the Quebec nation from the status of Founding people to that of one minority among the others, destined to melt into the cultural mosaic of Canada.

On the other hand, despite a strong cultural presence and a dynamic and cordial coexistence, the Anglophone community in Quebec could also be slowing down as any other minority among Quebecers. It appears that Canadian multiculturalism would cost the world cultural diversity a unique nation, rich in its own history, strongly mixed, indeed open and progressive, and carrying a language in decline in America. It is therefore understandable that, clumsily perhaps, these millions of people seek to reconcile their progressive and welcoming values with their desire for cultural and linguistic survival.

quebec mosque vigil

People gather around the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill during a vigil following a deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque, in Ottawa, Ont., Canada, Jan. 30, 2017. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The text that the Washington Post published is an excellent reflection of the duality that makes Canada a historical collage of sometimes irreconcilable differences. This linguistic, ideological, religious, territorial, cultural and often political distinction is not unique to Canada. We find the same elements in the recent history of the United States, which are nevertheless an inspiration among the great democracies.

In addition, by integrating the tremendous diversity of immigration within common institutions, patriotism and a common language, the American "Melting Pot" is far closer to interculturalism as promoted in Quebec than to Canadian multiculturalism.

It is necessary to always and without complacency ask ourselves, each one of us and together, what we could have done to avoid such a tragedy.

The events in Quebec City exposed the flank of sovereigntist and nationalist politicians. Nothing more was required for their adversaries to quickly take advantage of the extreme vulnerability of Quebec to describe it as a land of ethnic and racist nationalism at the heart of a virtuous Canada. What is fair to denounce is exclusion, ignorance and fear of difference. All Quebec leaders recognize that immigration is a cultural, demographic and economic contribution essential to the perpetuation of our nations.

It is never the fault of the Other. In politics, it is useless to cast off on others the responsibility for failure, retreat or tragedy. On the contrary, it is necessary to always and without complacency ask ourselves, each one of us and together, what we could have done otherwise to avoid such a tragedy and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. Despite the author's critical gaze and harsh words, Canada will not impede the current reflection in Quebec. On the contrary, it will oblige it to be better, welcoming, understanding and creative without renouncing what makes it a nation rich in its common culture.

By avoiding to blame the Other, Quebec will only be more legitimate to choose whether to remain a Canadian province or to sit as a country at the Table of Nations.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog indicated Lord Durham arrive in Lower Canada in 1841 . He arrived in 1838.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook

Also on HuffPost:


Vigil For Victims Of Quebec City Mosque Attack