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Quebec's nationalism run amok

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Harshaan Ahluwalis, 2, dribbles a soccer ball in Montreal last Saturday, the day the Quebec Soccer Federation announced an end to its turban ban.


Harshaan Ahluwalis, 2, dribbles a soccer ball in Montreal last Saturday, the day the Quebec Soccer Federation announced an end to its turban ban.

Say what you want about Pierre Trudeau, but he understood the pettiness and dangers of nationalism.

In a provocative essay, written in September 1992 during the contentious debates around the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, he suggested that entrenching Quebec's demand to be recognized as a "distinct society" was "frankly racist." Because as Trudeau argued, "there is a very good chance then that Quebecers of Irish, Jewish or Vietnamese origin -- even if they speak perfect French -- would have trouble claiming to belong to this 'distinct society.' "

Or, he might have added , young Sikhs who want to play soccer wearing their turbans.

Trudeau likely would have given one of his trademark told-you-so shrugs about the Quebec Soccer Federation's initial refusal to follow the directive of the Canadian Soccer Association and lift its controversial ban on turbans. This decision was as absurd as a similar incident last July when a nine-year-old girl from Gatineau, Que., Rayane Benatti, was not permitted to play in a soccer tournament because she would not remove her headscarf.

For close to two weeks, QSF officials justified their ruling as a grave concern over safety, a pathetic defence for which there is no basis in fact. Only a judgment by FIFA, the international soccer federation, which stated head covers are acceptable provided they meet professional standards, convinced the QSF to reverse its decision and offer a tepid apology to the Sikh community.

The larger issue at stake is an underlying philosophy that everyone should be treated equally and that making such accommodations to non-distinct society ethnic or religious groups was somehow detrimental to Quebec's future.

According to this one-sided logic, a large crucifix hanging in the Quebec National Assembly is acceptable because it symbolizes a link with Quebec's past, while a teenager wearing a small, light turban on a soccer field is objectionable.

Naturally, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, of the Parti Qu©b©cois, denounced the CSA's intervention as intruding on Quebec's right to autonomy. What else would you expect from a government that unleashes language police (inspectors from the Office qu©b©cois de la langue franßaise) to go after an Italian restaurant that dares to advertise the word "pasta" on its menu?

Outside of Quebec, the QSF's actions were condemned as yet another example of racism. That cry has been heard seemingly forever and has plenty of historical examples that go all the way back to the 18th century when the territory of Quebec was known as Lower Canada. Starting in 1807, Ezekiel Hart, a Jewish businessman, was elected to the Lower Canadian Assembly (the first Jew in the British Empire to be elected to public office) but he was not allowed to sit because he refused to swear an oath "as a Christian" on the New Testament.

In the 1930s, Adrian Arcand's fascist party in Qu©bec boasted a membership of 80,000 at the height of its popularity. In 1934, French-Canadian interns went on strike after the Notre Dame Hospital hired a Jewish doctor, Samuel Rabinovitch. French-Canadian Catholic intellectuals led by the still-revered Abb© Lionel Groulx sought to drive Jewish merchants out of the retail business by the "achat chez nous" ("buy from us") campaign. Though Groulx found anti-Semitism "a negative and silly solution," he still endorsed the anti-Jewish boycott and wrote about race purity.

In the pages of the L'Action Catholique and other Catholic newspapers, Jews were denounced as parasites and Bolsheviks. According to Marcel Hamel, the editor of La Nation, communism was "a Jewish invention," a view shared by Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis and other members of the Union Nationale. In the nationalist organ Le Devoir, according to historian Esther Delisle, Jews in the 1930s, were "aliens, circumcised, criminals, mentally ill, trash of nations, Tartars, infected with Semitism, malodorous -- they smell of garlic, live in lice-ridden ghettos, have greasy hair and pot bellies, big crooked noses, and they are dirty." Such notions were shared to different degrees by a generation of prominent Quebec leaders.

Still, these racist and anti-Semitic slurs did not generate the critical reaction they would today for the simple reason that similar nasty attitudes toward non-white and non-Christian immigrant groups were shared across Canada far beyond Quebec's borders. Prejudice and discrimination were part of Canadian life; a case in point was the University of Manitoba faculty of medicine's ethnic quota from 1932-44.

It is true, for instance, that in the late 1930s, Quebec politicians led by Ernest Lapointe, the federal minister of justice in Mackenzie King's government, were staunchly opposed to allowing into the country German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Yet the government's policy was shaped by a non-francophone, Frederick Blair, the deputy minister of immigration, a notorious anti-Semite, and most of the English-speaking ministers in King's cabinet supported Blair's racist policies and the kowtowing to Quebec's demands. They were just more subtle about it.

"We don't want to take too many Jews," astutely observed Norman Robertson, who worked at the external affairs department, "but, in the present circumstances particularly, we don't want to say so."

In his 1993 book, Blood and Belonging, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff draws a distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism, he explains, "maintains that the nation should be composed of all those -- regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language, or ethnicity -- who subscribe to the nation's political creed." Ethnic nationalism, "claims by contrast, that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited not chosen. It is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community."

Over many decades, so-called English Canada -- which once perceived its collective identity as "white ethnic nationalism," as Ignatieff labels it -- gradually transformed itself from ethnic to civic nationalism, the result of more liberal and refined attitudes, immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness.

Quebec, on the other hand, which moved from a religious-based society to a more secular one, has firmly adhered to ethnic nationalism. Feeling isolated and threatened, compelled to protect its history, language and culture in a country and continent dominated by the English-language, its ethnic nationalism routinely leads to the silliness perpetuated by the Quebec Soccer Federation and its hyper-sensitive language laws.

It was the same story with recent issues about the ritual slaughter of kosher meat (allegedly "a contravention of Quebec values"), practising "parking tolerance" around synagogues during high holidays, or even putting up frosted glass at a Montreal YMCA at the request of Orthodox Jews who did not want see women exercising (the frosted glass was removed a year later after it was installed).

A multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society such as Canada's is always dealing with questions of accommodation. How far is too far?

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a woman wearing a niqab that covered her face would have to remove it to testify. Ceremonial daggers should not be permitted on airplanes and ritual sacrifices in the name of religion are forbidden by law.

Yet, as long as Quebec continues to define that degree of accommodation much narrower and based on its sense of ethnic rather than civic nationalism as the QSF did with its ruling on turbans, charges of racism, rightly or wrongly, will continued to be levelled at its leaders and citizens.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2013 A9


Updated on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 8:50 AM CDT: replaces photo

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