Last weekend the Quebec legislature was busy giving their approval –not with great displeasure on the part of the opposition– to two controversial pieces of legislation tabled by the CAQ government: Bill 9 that reforms immigration to the province, and Bill 21 on secularism.
While Bill 9 will have some immediate adverse effects on those who have applied to come to Quebec (around 18,000 applications will be thrown out, affecting an estimated 50,000 people) there is a long term effect with implications potentially more controversial. Bill 9 will make a requirement for prospective immigrants to Quebec the passing of two tests, one of the French language, and the other on what has been termed Quebec values.
Both, the economy critic for the Liberal Party, Dominique Anglade, and the immigration critic for Québec solidaire, Andrés Fontecilla, expressed strong rejection of the legislation and the tests to which the immigrants would be subjected: “Honestly I don’t think this bill will be seen positively in history. It’s the image of Quebec which gets tarnished” said Ms. Anglade, while Mr. Fontecilla pointed out that “the government was never able to explain a clause linking an immigrant’s permanent residency status with their ability to pass a value and French language test.” Bill 9 was approved with votes of the CAQ and the Parti Québécois.
Indeed the trickiest point of the bill is this notion of “Quebec values” since, by its own nature, values change in any society over time. Immigrants to the province in the first half of the 20th century were coming to a society where the Catholic Church had a substantial presence; therefore, its values permeated those of the whole society. Rejection of practices such as abortion or homosexuality were well-entrenched “values” of this society until a few decades ago. Women’s equality is a well-appreciated value today, but until not so long ago the values of the day basically relegated them to procreate, and even democracy was not regarded as such an important value since women’s voting rights took some time to be accepted. The danger is that by setting certain values as the ones of society, in fact, the government would only be recognizing the current values which may not necessarily be valid forever. And, of course, there are the practical questions of who would elaborate this values test, who would apply it, and how would it be evaluated. Would immigrants be able to take the values test in English? Probably not, if as some people want, its French character becomes one of the Quebec “values.”
On the other hand, Bill 21 on secularism, which bars the display of religious symbols by civil servants in a position of authority, has opened another can of worms: what is a religious symbol? The Quebec Minister for Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness (sic) Simon Jolin-Barrette attempted a definition, but again, that’s a tricky issue as well since it leads to other challenges of potentially offending religious symbols, for one, the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly will be gone soon. But then someone may argue, what about the cross on Mount Royal, a recognizable religious symbol on public land, or the names of towns and streets, should they be changed as previous English names were erased when francization was enforced? No more Saints like Denis, Laurent, Mathieu, or Catherine on the city map? Some even mention that the Quebec flag, displaying a conspicuous cross, should also be redesigned. Of course, in the end that would lead to a silly game of getting rid of what after all is part of Quebec cultural heritage (whether we like or not this was and, still is, a society largely shaped by a Christian cultural heritage). The problem lies with those with a parochial mentality who don’t see that in the same way as members –and women in particular– of the Christian faith were able to question the more patriarchal, and reactionary aspects of their religion, practitioners of other faiths could do the same. After all, progressive, libertarian values operating through cultural mechanisms rather than by government command, are more effective in making people move away from fundamentalism. But you have to give those believers time to change, ordering them to abandon their symbols may have the opposite effect.
And last, but not least, it is our metropolis, Montreal, which may suffer the most if enforcement of this new legislation starts to take a toll on its diversity and people from the minorities targeted by this legislation decide to leave. That would be a loss for the entire region of Montreal that has gained by the diversity their presence brings.
Feature image: A protest against the failed PQ’s Charter of Quebec values in 2013, now the demonstrations may resume