Bill 21’s faux-secularism will divide and marginalize Quebecers

The CAQ’s discriminatory new law and its cheerleaders are stoking a crisis in our political climate.

Yesterday, the Liberal MNA for Bourassa-Sauvé, Paule Robitaille, was forced to delete a tweet. The tweet in question was a benign, smiling image of her with four female schoolteachers-to-be who were wearing hijabs. Alongside the picture, Robitaille made the (rather accurate) observation that these competent, intelligent, and delightful women won’t be able to teach in Quebec if Bill 21 is soon adopted.

“After 750 messages (most of them hateful) I was forced to delete my tweet at the request of one of the young women in the picture with me,” she explained. “This is the climate we have found ourselves in. This is not the Quebec that I know. We must welcome and integrate, not exclude.”

Those 750 messages didn’t materialize out of thin air. They were undoubtedly largely inspired by Journal de Montréal columnist and professional Islamophobe Richard Martineau, who felt compelled to write a column about the tweet to point out Robitaille’s “bad faith” and therefore placed it on his followers’ radar.

Martineau, who seems incapable of holding two (seemingly) opposed ideas in his mind at the same time without incurring a migraine, questioned how it was possible that Robitaille could be wearing a shirt with spaghetti straps and yet find it acceptable that these four women would freely choose to wear hijabs and conservative full-sleeved dresses. How in the world do two very different vestimentary choices and ideas of female modesty manage to coexist in this world without the universe imploding, Richard? It’s like you’ve never seen a department store before! According to Martineau and folks who think like him, a decision apparently cannot be taken freely by others unless it’s a decision that they (complete strangers) must be entirely comfortable with.

To no one’s surprise, Martineau also made the tired old argument about how someone from the western world would not be able to go to a strict Muslim country and teach while wearing spaghetti straps. Aside from the fact that female students and teachers are constantly body-policed and can barely do that here now, I’m so tired of that lazy whataboutism… I don’t know about Martineau, but I don’t look to brutal, corrupt and misogynistic theocracies for my cues on how to live my life. Why do Islamophobes always point to what’s forbidden in strict Muslim countries as a valid argument for limiting women’s freedoms here? Do they not see the contradiction in their logic, or do they not care?
Martineau also insisting that these women’s imam had decided for them what to wear, is paternalistic and condescending. These grown women are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about their lives and their wardrobe choices as strange or unappealing as it may seem to him. I don’t personally care for Martineau’s boring old wardrobe of 50 Shades of Grey (Suit), with the occasional TV appearance in a burqa, but I don’t assume Sophie picked it out for him. I give him full credit for that banality.

It doesn’t matter, however, that his column was both intellectually lazy and written in bad faith. It got the job done. Within a few hours, Robitaille had to contend with an onslaught of hateful comments, as an army of Bill 21 supporters came out in hordes to unleash their righteous anger, convinced these Muslim women were a) either brainwashed and in dire need of help, or b) maliciously spreading Islamist propaganda and playing the victim card. I mean, which is it? I’m always amazed at the mental gymnastics that bigots are required to engage in to prevent themselves from seeing the inherent paradoxes in their contradictory statements. Schrodinger’s Cat lives to see another day…

In the meantime, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette is pushing through Bill 21 no matter what religious minorities are telling him and despite legal experts advising against it. With hardly any groups directly affected by the legislation having been invited to speak, the hearings have felt like a bit of a sham and a necessary formality the government must resentfully endure before it goes ahead with what it intends to go through with anyway. I have seen no indications of compromise or comprehension on the government’s part. In Jolin-Barrette, Legault could not have found a better foot soldier.

As Quebec’s CAQ government inches closer and closer this week towards passing two of its most controversial and contested bills — Bill 9 on immigration and Bill 21 on secularism — I find myself worried for the people most affected. I watch my fellow Quebecers marginalized and “othered” by these proposed bills and the assumptions they come with, and I see more and more bigots emboldened to spew their hate online and in real life with the kind of impunity that scares me.

Premier Legault has made it clear he wants both bills approved before the National Assembly breaks for summer. Jolin-Barrette has repeatedly expressed his frustration at opposition parties “delaying” approval and asking too many questions. God forbid there are checks and balances in a democratic process…

In the meantime, some Bill 21 supporters have grown bolder in expressing their views, no longer even ambivalent about admitting that they don’t care if religious minorities are discriminated against, since secularism at all costs is the goal. “At all costs,” of course, only means that some of us will be penalized, while most of us won’t even notice. Bill 21 supporters seem okay with that.

It’s glorious when state-appointed discriminatory secularism targets only minorities, allowing the majority to pretend that they took an important step forward towards self-determination and the separation of church and state, when all they really did was find themselves a convenient loophole to discriminate against people who don’t look or live like them.

I love this province. I love this city. At its finest, it’s everything I want in a place I call home. It’s open, welcoming, embracing and a safe place to live, work and play. But, at its worst, it’s also a place that is constantly afraid. Afraid it will lose its culture, its language, its identity. Afraid it will disappear.

When you live as an endangered species, you’re always in survival mode. Everything and everyone are threats to you. So, you think that by affirming your idea of difference, instead of embracing all differences, you will somehow cling to something that will establish both primacy and longevity. This discriminatory, anti-religious, nationalist, dogmatic form of secularism is the shot in the arm that some Quebecers think they need. They are wrong.

Quebec is cutting off its nose to spite its face. The long-term consequences of marginalizing its own citizens via this faux-secularism will be multi-faceted and costly — both for the social fabric of our community’s “vivre-ensemble” and in failing to successfully deal with the religious fundamentalism so many of us fear.

The bitter irony is this: given Quebec’s history, we are uniquely suited to understanding how marginalization and discrimination can bruise people and create resentment, yet we are somehow unable to stop ourselves from reproducing the same. We have chosen to elect a populist government that legislates based on fears; not facts. ■