Simon Jolin-Barrette and François Legault Boys Club bill 96

Photo by Jacques Boissinot

Quebec’s profoundly shameful legislation

The two bills that were passed on Sunday run contrary to people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. And our Premier knows it.

On Sunday, I woke up to find that Quebec’s Bill 9 on immigration had become law. Just after 4 a.m. (because the best decisions are always made in the middle of the night) and after a rare marathon weekend session, the National Assembly passed legislation that will irrevocably change the immigration system in the province, throw out 18,000 current immigration applications and force a Quebec “values” test on would-be immigrants. By the end of the day, Bill 21 on secularism would also be rammed through.

Sunday also happened to be Father’s Day. I thought about my dad. My immigrant dad. I thought about his sacrifices, his hardships, the future he was able to build here for himself and his family. I thought of the first job he ever held, working as a dishwasher, and the sign over the sink that casually warned him, “You break a dish I break your head.”

I thought of my immigrant mom and the deep blue varicose veins her legs are covered with, the result of standing on her feet for most of her working life. I thought of how they left everything and everyone they loved behind, how they swallowed every insult, every petty comment made by every person who looked down on them because they spoke neither French nor English when they first arrived. By today’s immigration standards and the CAQ’s “values” test, perhaps my parents wouldn’t have passed as the “desirable” kind of immigrants and would have never been allowed in. Who knows?

What I do know is that over the weekend, Quebec decided that 18,000 immigration applications, representing close to 50,000 people, would be thrown out and no consideration given to the efforts made, the years waiting and the costs incurred. Premier Legault indicated that he will be returning the application fees, as if that meager amount could even begin to compensate these people for the fact that their lives — and the fact that many of whom already live and work here — have been turned upside down.

Quebec desperately needs immigration
Despite the number of Quebecers congratulating Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette on his bold and courageous move to allow a majority to trample on minority rights and slam the door on newcomers, while saying nonsensical things like “we’ve never been prouder to be Quebecers” or “you have given us wings,” Quebec desperately needs immigrants.

This, whether some like it or not, is an irrefutable fact. Quebec’s perilously low birthrate and low levels of immigration (it both accepts fewer immigrants and fewer immigrants want to come here) make it unable to turn the tide of demographic decline all on its own.

Without immigration, Quebec will be unable to handle the dire labour shortages it’s currently experiencing, create a tax base that will pay for an increasingly older population and its French culture and language, which it so desperately and understandably defends, will eventually die. This isn’t fear mongering — this is reality.
And yet, despite this undeniable fact, the CAQ has somehow decided to focus less on bringing in more immigrants and ensuring their integration is successful, and more on laws that keep immigrants out or make them want to leave if already here.

Quebec is facing the existential crisis that homogeneous majority groups all around the world face when they realize that the survival of their language and culture now largely depends on people from other religious and ethnic cultures. What an unfortunate conundrum for those unwilling to see difference as a value.

Populist legislation to appease fictional fears
Bills 9 and 21 are nothing more than populist legislation aimed at the CAQ’s regional base. As support for nationalism and sovereignty have declined, the CAQ has managed to tap into the perpetual existential angst of French Quebecers who constantly fear erasure. Both bills are meant to placate the fearful, “protect” against non-existent hypothetical problems (akin to Trump’s Muslim Ban or the federal Conservatives’ embarrassingly clumsy Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act) and perpetuate the false notion that Quebec is “standing up” for itself and its own self-interests.

But if increased immigration and integration are in Quebec’s self-interests, and making immigrants feel “chez nous” is the goal, it’s running in the opposite direction.

Forcing 18,000 skilled workers to restart a lengthy and costly process is not only insulting, cruel and deeply damaging to Quebec’s international reputation. It’s deeply naïve navel-gazing. Skilled and well-educated workers aren’t bound by limited options. Despite what Jolin-Barrette’s fawning fans seem to think, well-educated and agile, skilled workers have choices. They know what they bring to the table and aren’t about to sit around and grovel to be let in or respond in any positive way to Quebec’s coercive measures. This isn’t a Saturday brunch line-up at l’Avenue. The more people frustratingly being kept outside won’t increase the number of folks interested in getting in.

Immigrants need to be valued
Skilled immigrants weigh numerous factors before transplanting themselves elsewhere. They need to know that they will be valued and appreciated and respected for their future contributions, and after being treated in such a callous way by this government they won’t be sitting around with trembling anticipation for the CAQ to allow them to resubmit their application in the hopes of being allowed to enter the province.

These applicants will lick their wounds, tell anyone who will listen to avoid Quebec because it treats immigrants like easily disposable commodities and will reapply somewhere else. They will take their skills, their youth, their talents, their education and, in many cases, money to invest, and will go where they feel their own self-interests lie. Immigration is a Quid Pro Quo system, and somehow this government seems to think that the only folks benefitting are the people being let in.

“Cold immigration policies, which disregard human considerations, will deter the best and the brightest, the strongest human assets available,” writes Cherif Rifaat, in Immigrants Adapt, Countries Adopt… or Not: Fitting Into the Cultural Mosaic. There is an economic cost attached to harsh immigration policies.”

If you don’t care about the cost to our reputation and social harmony, then perhaps you should care about our long-term ability to pay for programs like subsidized daycare, free education, healthcare and all those things we hold so dear. When Premier Legault says “Au Quebec c’est comme ça qu’on vit,” is he talking about those things, too?

Supporters of Bill 9 and Bill 21 insist that both laws are meant to improve on things, to make Quebec a more secular, more equal, more inclusive place. I don’t know how those in favour of state-sanctioned discrimination and the callous disregard of 18,000 applications justify that lack of logic. Not only does Bill 21 represent a fundamental misunderstanding of secularism (we already live in a secular state, despite the crucifix continuing to stare down at us all from the National Assembly’s Blue Salon) and is limited in scope (it doesn’t affect private schools, the majority of which are Christian-run), the government has failed miserably to prove why Bill 9 was needed at all.

Forcing conformity is not a long-term solution
By voting for a government that has gone forward with these two bills, Quebec has taken a giant step backwards. This isn’t just about some misguided and limited definition of secularism, or an attempt to better control immigration. This is ultimately about how we, as a collective, get to define who we are and our priorities. It’s about how elastic and malleable and inclusive our sense of this collectivity we form is and whether, as Rifaat writes, “it makes room for us all” — just as we are.

When Legault says he’s proud of these bills and that “it’s his responsibility to defend Quebec values,” I am ashamed. If you preemptively use the notwithstanding clause and force closure to stomp out both parliamentary debate and legal challenges to your proposed bills, you already know that what you’re trying to ram through goes contrary to people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. Those aren’t my Quebec values.

That disregard and “mépris” for others was clearly seen over the weekend on two occasions: when Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for those two important files, decided to leave the debate and take his perma-smirk out for a jog, and when, at the 11th hour, the CAQ introduced last-minute amendments to Bill 21, with no benefit of debate, which essentially outline surveillance powers for the ministry and rules of enforcement (we can now look to Iran and its Islamic Religious Police for inspiration for our own soon-to-be-formed Secular Squad) basically opening the door for citizens to be snitching on one another.

If the CAQ wanted to communicate that it places no value on democracy, debate or the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, it couldn’t have done a better job. It’s now running Quebec like a heartless corporation whose board of directors are homogenous and tone deaf and their stockholders are a regional base confident they have defended us against the onslaught of imaginary outside threats and scary Muslims. In the meantime, by attacking and alienating the most integrated and well-adjusted members of Quebec’s religious communities, the government has done absolutely nothing to tackle religious fundamentalism, but it has now given it a reason to exist and multiply.

A new shameful chapter begins
What the CAQ has engaged in is nothing but dog-whistle populism combined with a smoke and mirror show. Governments have always relied on playing on people’s fears and prejudices to distract and unify the majority. Throughout history, immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities have always been convenient scapegoats. The CAQ is simply following a time-honoured, well-trodden path that both Quebec and Canada know well.
The so-called “Quebec values test,” which CAQ partisans seem so “proud” of today, doesn’t even exist. Bill 9 doesn’t establish one. It simply gives the ministry the power to negotiate with the federal government. Good luck with that.

In the meantime, the CAQ’s badly defined legislation leaves it open to court challenges. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) have already announced that they will be challenging Bill 21.

Premier Legault and the CAQ may be celebrating, in the mistaken belief that they have “turned the page,” but we’re just getting started here. This legislation will wreak havoc on social peace and Quebec’s “vivre ensemble.” It will increase discrimination and violence against Quebecers who wear visible religious symbols. It will make racists feel entitled and emboldened in their hate. It will make Quebec unattractive on the international front for new immigrants who will feel no desire to subject themselves to the whim of a majority who thinks it justified to impose their personal view of the world, just so that some don’t feel uncomfortable with diversity and difference.

Quebecers have been manipulated and duped. We have voted in laws that not only run contrary to our self-interests as a nation desperately needing to incorporate new immigrants into its folds for its long-term survival, but also exposes us as deeply lacking confidence in being able to absorb and integrate differences.

Quebec has chosen to affirm its national identity and pride in the worst way possible: by pitting us against a manufactured “other,” exacting conformity,and by alienating everyone who doesn’t fit into the limited and insular mold of what defines a Quebecer.

Our schools are falling apart, our healthcare system is in dire need of resuscitation, our infrastructure is crumbling, key environmental issues are being sidelined, but we’re supposed to pretend that denying a handful of women the right to certain careers for the simple reason that they look different from us is a giant step forward.
If you think that there’s anything proudly self-affirming about limiting others’ prospects and freedoms so you can “stand up for yourself,” you’ve just fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Forgive me for not wanting any part of it. ■