Shame! Not one voice against the suppression of expression

Par Beryl Wajsman le 6 décembre 2017

Yet again in Quebec, we are living through more suffocating political hypocrisy and pandering to the worst elements of division and discord merely to cover the cowardly partisanship of elected officials. And as has become de riguer here, truth, equity and respect for civil rights be damned. It is not justice that "rains down like waters" from the National Assembly but words of "nullification and interposition" as Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the rule and regulation of institutionalized prejudice in the American South. And not one voice was raised in the Assembly against the latest installment of capitulation and appeasement. Not one voice.

Remarkably, just two weeks after Premier Couillard named Kathleen Weil to head up an Anglo Ministry, and just one week after an LPQ convention resolved that all legislation be carefully examined for any negative impact on anglophone communities, the National Assembly - led by the Liberal majority - voted unanimously in favor of a PQ motion to "invite" all merchants and salespeople in Quebec to drop the "Bonjour-Hi" greeting to customers and to use only "Bonjour." Not one Liberal MNA voted against the PQ motion. Not even any of the MNAs and Ministers representing largely anglophone ridings.Indeed, it was the Premier himself who made the vote possible by working out a deal with the PQ on the motion's wording  instead of dismissing the latest nationalist ethnic insult. Fear of being called "soft" on English is - as ever - the watchword in Quebec. 

One would think that some grave event occurred that raised the spectre of a threat to French and pushed four parties into unanimity. But no, it was the opening of a store. Adidas held an opening for a new store in downtown Montreal. The store's Francophone manager spoke only a few lines in French to the media who gathered there. And that was enough. Quebec City Mayor Regis Lebeaume arrived in Montreal the next day for a scheduled visit and promptly called the manager's use of English "scandalous." Debates erupted about the threat to French in the workplace stemming from the retail sector, and Montreal's traditional "Bonjour-Hi" greeting was targeted as a "symptom" of the threat. Within hours, Couillard's own Minister responsible for the French Language Marie Montpetit unburdened herself of the opinion that "Bonjour-Hi" was an "irritant." And that was all that PQ leader Jean-François Lisée needed to try and score some political capital with the nationalists.

Lisée had a motion drafted that called on the National Assembly to recognize unanimously that "Hi" was an "irritant" and only "Bonjour" should be used. Instead of deriding the motion, disavowing Montpetit and reminding the public the M. Lisée had built much of his career as a journalist in Washington - a career he would not have had without the command of English he would now deny to his fellow Francophones - Couillard folded. He agreed that if Lisée dropped the word "irritant" he would instruct his Liberals to vote for the motion as an "invitation." And the rest once again is history.

As with "Pastagate," "Spoongate" and all the other language gates, Quebec has once again become a laughing-stock across the industrialized west with media from the Washington Post to the BBC reporting on this latest cleansing of minority language rights. But the damage - as always - is deeper than that. This is about the never-ending demonization of all non- Francophones. This is about the never-ending exploitation of Francophone fears. This is about the never-ending paralysis of Quebec stuck in continuing culture wars with politicians always appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is dangerous.

The crusading editor of Le Jour Jean-Charles Harvey, who helped bring down Duplessis, knew this corrosive core of our society as far back as 1938. He wrote the iconic novel of Quebec that year and it  called "La Peur" - "The Fear." He understood, and attacked, the use of fear as the guiding  tactic in Quebec politics. He wrote the following in that great book, "La liberté ne s'accomode pas d'une discipline qui a pour devise: "Chez les autres on vous apprend comment penser; chez nous, on fait mieux, on vous apprend quoi penser.” He understood - as did  his contemporaries Albert Camus in France and George Orwell in Britain - that legislating thought was the stuff of tyranny not democracy. A free society is not free if its legislature tells people what to think. Or in what language to speak.That is what the National Assembly did. It "invited" Quebecers to think in the manner that they are instructed to. Reasonable people may question whether there is any intellectual honesty, courage or understanding of freedom in this National Assembly.

bonjour_hi.jpgThe actions of the Premier raise again a troubling trend in his administration.  Earlier this year M. Couillard announced that he was “sad” that many non-Francophones distrusted the government and the Quebec Liberal Party. One wonders if he will ever get it. His administration has overseen the elimination of Mont-Royal riding and the reduction of anglophone representation in the Assembly. In 2015 his administration suggested examining an expansion to Bill 101. His administration stood silent when the OQLF began harassing the Pontiac Journal to “segregate” English and French. His administration - even in the face of Anglophone and Francophone anger and mockery - pushed for French descriptors onto trademark signs outside major stores like Best Buy and Canadian Tire even though trademarks are exempted in Bill 101. The Premier called it “protecting basic politeness.” He somehow has a problem protecting basic law. Even the 2012 Quebec City covenant of the Inter-Parliamentary Union on minority language rights that Quebec signed.

We have heard the apologists declare that Couillard must protect his flank against the nationalists. But that excuse flies in the face of the facts. One of the reasons Marois was so resoundingly defeated was precisely because Couillard was unequivocal on the rights issues during the campaign. Even francophones are tired of the culture wars. They want expanded opportunity too. But it seems that once someone gains power, they attempt to pander to votes even at the cost of principle.

The argument that language restrictions bring social peace is disingenuous. Social peace is not a legitimate goal if it is the sole aim of a society. Social justice is however. And a just society does not limit free speech. This government must bring the suppression of expression to an end. 

There is perhaps one ray of hope in this episode. The broad mass of Montrealers - of all ethnic and language origins - are deriding this overt display of mean and petty spirit. The people are smarter than the politicians. And gutsier. They are best exemplified by the salesgirl who when asked why she won't drop "Hi" she looked right into the camera and stated with clarity and candour, "It's about freedom of speech, right?" Yes it is. It very rightly is.


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