Manitoba’s cheeky poke at Quebec is very upsetting for Bill 21 supporters

Pearl-clutching, pissing contests and ludicrous statements followed a Manitoba ad campaign in Quebec media.

Last week, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister spent $20,000 for print and digital ads in Quebec media listing 21 reasons why Manitoba is a desirable place to move to. The 21 reasons were a clever — and obvious — allusion to Bill 21 and the fact that it prevents Quebecers who wear religious symbols from working in government positions “of authority.” “Not only will we respect your rights to wear what you want, you’ll be welcomed here,” is pretty much what the ad communicated.

Almost immediately, a groundswell of anger and indignation broke out across the province. Pro-Bill 21 supporters, who have no issue telling religious minorities that they could no longer wear their articles of faith if they aspire to careers in teaching or law enforcement, were suddenly incensed to find out that this legislation could potentially have consequences for someone other than the people targeted.

What followed in rapid-fire succession were equal parts condemnation, whataboutism and denial. Pundits and politicians leapfrogged one another in a somewhat chaotic attempt to keep pace with the political jabs. And in the middle of it all? Quebec Premier François Legault and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister doing their best to bring to life the popular “Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man” meme.

Quebec was suddenly acting like a jilted former boyfriend who didn’t really want his girlfriend the way she was but didn’t want anyone else creeping around, either. I mean, which is it? You can’t alienate and marginalize entire swaths of Quebecers by telling them that who they are and what they look like doesn’t correspond to your narrow definition of secularism, and then, when these bilingual (often, trilingual), skilled, educated Quebecers are wooed by other provinces, get all huffy and puffy about it.

Is it so surprising that ambitious young people with marketable skills, who have dreams and career aspirations, might be tempted by invitations where their religious identity isn’t an issue? Is it so offensive that they might not want to remain in a place that, right now, seems to neither want them nor value them just as they are?

For the record, I am defending neither Quebec nor Manitoba in this very Canadian of milquetoast spats. The back-and-forth that I saw between Premier Legault and Premier Pallister, involving minor-league jabs about hockey players and staying in your lane, is the kind of petty, parochial politics I find deeply uninspiring. As inelegant as the term I’m about to use may be, I have seen my share of pissing contests in politics and I don’t care for them.

Many Quebecers, like Legault, think Manitoba’s premier is meddling in Quebec politics to bash us. Others, like Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, seem to think Pallister has some sort of misguided but altruistic motive in coming to the aid of those Quebec rejected. Nadeau-Dubois went on Twitter to implore him to stay out of it “because he’s not helping those fighting the legislation.”

I’m baffled by those who think Pallister is out to help those marginalized or those fighting it. He’s primarily out to help himself. He may be virtue-signalling — after all, it’s so easy to do here — but, more than anything else, he’s looking to gain from those Quebec has denied. Manitoba has a growing economy and a serious dearth of skilled labour. He needs to attract more people to his province. By the way, Quebec also has a growing economy and a dearth of skilled labour, but you wouldn’t know it by the way our current government is acting, by playing identity politics and backtracking every second day on ill-conceived immigration reforms.

The self-righteous outrage at Pallister’s move has been highly amusing. Mainly, because it’s been selective. I saw a million different variations of “Manitoba isn’t in a position to give us any moral lessons” floating around. Some insisted on bringing Métis leader and Manitoba founder Louis Riel, into the conversation. For what it’s worth, Riel was dealt a terrible hand, but Manitoba has fully acknowledged and honoured his role in its history. I also can’t help but wonder how a man hanged for protecting minority rights in Canada and who embodied tolerance for difference and social justice would feel about his name being invoked in a debate involving the abrogation of another minority’s rights. Food for thought…

I saw people who never appeared to care one iota about Manitoba’s treatment of Indigenous people suddenly become their biggest defenders. Columnist Boucar Diouf groan-inducingly referred to Pallister as a “multicultural supremacist,” proving, once again, that if the ROC knows little about Quebec, Quebec knows just as little about the ROC. On Twitter, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet described politicians in the rest of the country opposed to Bill 21 as a “gang of small boys in a pre-internet school yard attacking those who are different,” completely unaware of the irony of such a tone-deaf statement, propelling hijab-wearing Muslim women everywhere in Quebec to reach under their beds to see if a Just for Laughs Gags camera crew was hiding under the box spring.

Quebec politicians and pundits who point to Manitoba’s questionable track record with its own francophone minorities and Indigenous communities are 100 per cent right. Francophone minorities in Manitoba (like Ontario and New Brunswick) have been mistreated, underfunded and discriminated against, and often still are. Additionally, First Nations communities have endured racism and violence to such an extent that, according to Maclean’s, Winnipeg “was arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city.” On top of all that, the Conservative premier has enacted deep cuts in his province, laying off hundreds of public sector workers, freezing and even threatening to roll back wages. I can just imagine laid-off workers in Manitoba hearing about this ad and having some choice words for him.

So, yes. Pallister is in no position to be moralizing or pretending to be a human rights champion. But neither is Quebec in a position to be pearl-clutching and pretending to be on the brink of fainting under the unbearable weight ofunwarranted criticism. Whether pro-Bill 21 supporters want to acknowledge it or not, Bill 21, in its actual practice and implementation, stigmatizes, marginalizes and discriminates against religious communities. In presuming to “liberate” women from the shackles of religion, women’s bodily autonomy and career aspirations are being compromised. In pretending to free Quebec society from religious bias, practising religious minorities are being actively discriminated against. People have been made to feel unwelcome and “othered” by those who yield secularism as a sword, selectively slicing away what they don’t want.

And for the record, can everyone please stop using Indigenous communities and the horrendous treatment they’ve endured as a barometer or gauge of how better or worse you comparatively are? We all sucked, and Quebec’s own relationship with Indigenous communities is only mildly better. French colonizers were just as complicit in eradicating Indigenous people, languages and cultures in Canada as British colonizers were. And I honestly don’t care to engage in “whose behaviour was worse” arguments because this shouldn’t be a race to the bottom.

Pallister may be virtue-signalling and he may be gleefully grandstanding to score a few cheap political points, but at the end of the day he can’t be faulted for that ad. Why wouldn’t our losses inevitably translate into someone else’s gain? It’s an opportunistic move, but it’s no different from the ads Ontario placed during the PQ’s ill-conceived Quebec Values Charter era, announcing that “Ontario didn’t care what’s on your head, but in it.” And those ads will work for some.

My friend Nour Farhat, who graduated from McGill Law and wants to become a prosecutor (something she won’t be able to do while wearing a hijab) found the Manitoba ad tempting, but she has no plans to leave. Instead, she’s staying and fighting Bill 21 as part of the legal team challenging it in court. Still, she says: “I’m always wondering if all my life in Quebec will be about defending who I am.” What a terrible and unnecessary burden to place on someonejust starting out… And to those who say, “Just take it off,” I respectfully argue that you do not get to dictate what comprises someone’s identity, at least not without trampling on their rights and freedoms. What’s more, if you take Pallister’s interference “this” personally, yet refuse to understand why Bill 21 is a deeplypersonalattack on people who wear religious symbols, maybe you are not as fair-minded as you think yourself to be.

A few years ago, when Donald Trump was first elected, I interviewed professor Irvin Studin, a leading international policy thinker, about how Canada could best deal with the unpredictability of his presidency. “Canada should take advantage of the Muslim Ban and the anti-immigrant sentiment in the government, and poach as much international talent as it can,” he replied. “Their loss can be our gain.” I remember thinking at the time that it was coldly calculating, but fair.

Pallister is not doing anything different. If Quebec is alienating its religious minorities and making them feel unwelcome, making them question their future here — in the midst of Canada-wide labour shortages, no less — others are going to swoop in to poach educated, talented and motivated graduates ready to work with no limitations placed on their career aspirations. It’s not personal, it’s business.

If the consequences of Bill 21 are that young people born and raised and educated here move elsewhere so they can feel like they’re on equal footing with everyone else, and if an inevitable and significant brain drain occurs as a result, Premier Legault only has himself to blame. Pallister is only doing what the Quebec premier so effortlessly enabled him to do. ■