The Values Charter as Jumbo Shrimp

If demonstrable failures in logically consistent reasoning were a punishable criminal offence, most politicians would be in jail. Quebec nationalists would be especially likely to be forced to don striped suits, facing charges as habitual offenders. There is little hope of seeing this appealing fantasy realized, so it is more useful to examine why so many self-contradictory expressions and propositions, scourged in philosophy and law classrooms, are so readily advanced in politics, nationalist politics especially.

For movements seeking ambitious changes, there is an unstated first principle: sauce for the goose must never be sauce for the gander. The principle is mandatory when trying to rouse any new sense of moral entitlement. It is always hypocritical, requiring selective targets and selective outrage. At the moment, for example, gay political activists are making loud noises about the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ stance of Vladimir Putin, while being almost mute about the many countries in which homosexuality is illegal, unlike Russia, and treated with far more savagery.

Similarly, in Quebec and elsewhere, many of the most ardent advocates of interventionist government policies aimed at re-arranging public behaviour are graduates of expensive private schools intended to enter them into high prestige employments and expensive neighbourhoods, comfortably remote from any unpleasant consequences of the improvements they favour. Compulsory rules are for the geese; protection from the farmyard for the ganders.

Quebec’s nationalist politicians, who represent only an uncertain aspiration at best, have always found it difficult to transform the projections of their egos into the shared purposes of a broad electoral base. If a large and enduring majority shared their views, a party like the PQ would scarcely need to exist. There have been exciting moments when nationalists have almost conceded this possibility. In June of 1990, when Robert Bourassa had to rise in the Quebec legislature to formally acknowledge the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Jacques Parizeau, then the Official Opposition Leader, walked across the floor and embraced the Liberal Premier. Not long afterwards, with his usual unmatched flair for dropping bricks, he declared in public, “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty.”

However, the fevers of 1990 subsided, and when Parizeau led the province into the 1995 Referendum vote, even after calling on the more charismatic Lucien Bouchard for assistance, their combined forces could not raise a ‘Yes’ vote of over 50%. The demographic changes since then augur still lower percentage limits for any future referendum. Francophone immigrants, and children of non-francophone immigrants raised in French, might feel little emotional attachment to Canada, but have largely become trilingual Montrealers, not enthralled by separatist dreams either.

Hence the PQ is now a party founded on an ‘option’ that does not exist. It has become otherwise largely defined by deference to the interests of the public sector unions and to the mass agitation of college students; declining political assets, even for holding their off-Montreal voting base.

Their current attempt to escape this blind alley, the so-called ‘Values Charter’, is another oxymoron in its own right, like Bill 101’s accompanying ‘Charter of the French Language’, proposing the kind of legislation that ‘charters’ are normally intended to prevent. While it is obviously a gamble for electoral advantage, its many critics have been dismayed that it seems to be having some success at just that. However, its elite and popular francophone support can not be simply dismissed as being based on ‘bigotry’ alone. It also displays a local fondness for yet another tacit oxymoron, best called ‘cosmopolitan parochialism’.

The ‘old’ French Catholic pre-1960s Quebec was never as cloistered and confined as the approving mythology of Lionel Groulx had it. But its main intermediary relationship with the wider world for two centuries was through English language, political institutions, and business. But that was changed, not only by the newer kind of political nationalism, but by the Trudeau government’s formal endorsement of ‘multiculturalism’ in a 1971 Act of that name. When Keith Spicer, the frequently indiscreet first Official Languages Commissioner, was interviewed on CBC English TV in the 1970s, he described the Act as a ‘bribe’ (his word) for ‘ethnic’ Canadians, especially in the West, to get them to accept Official Bilingualism. Cynical Ottawa bureaucrats treated it as being little more than a program of new subsidies for ‘dance, diet, and dress’.

In Quebec, on the other hand, it was regarded with suspicion, as possibly establishing the notion that the French Canada could become just another tile in the big mosaic, not just in the rest of Canada, but in Montreal. However, even nationalists wanting to jettison more and more ‘trans-Canadian’ institutions have also become anxious to avoid being identified as the partisans of a narrowly tribal French Canadian movement, ‘Opened to the world’ by modern mass media and by travel, they have sought some outside additional authentication. The U. S., anglophone and individualistic, will not do. The consequence has been a superficial but politically significant turning of eyes to Europe.

European countries have never had the Western Hemisphere’s welcoming assumptions about immigrants, and has clearly been having real problems with Muslim ones. Especially over the last seven years or so, their leaders have been taking a harder and harder line on both immigration in genera and the whole concept of multiculturalism. The recently re-elected Angela Merkel has flatly declared the latter a failure, to a standing ovation at the last convention of her party. David Cameron has agreed. France has been moving in the same direction for years now; even the traditionally tolerant Dutch and Scandinavians have changed course. General European apprehensions have clearly been increased by high youth unemployment, but there is also alarm about Muslims showing little inclination to assimilate or even partially integrate into their host societies, instead withdrawing into sullen urban enclaves, maintained more by welfare payments and petty crime than gradually improving paid employment.

Pauline Marois may not have all that detailed an understanding of these developments, as was revealed in her quickly-withdrawn but expedient comments that multiculturalist Britain is now plagued by constant bomb-tossing. She got her message out, and it is about more than visible head coverings. The ‘Values Charter’ requires a mask of it own; the dual pretence about the existence of a new ‘sacredness’ of a ‘secular’ Quebec state and society, dodging the obvious observation that the largest single religion in contemporary Quebec is collectivist political nationalism itself, and the additional one that this province can pick and choose immigrants and shape their urban cultural behaviour, while continuing to drive out the Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and miscellaneous who would have been most likely to provide the province with adequate future tax revenue. Perhaps they should raise a statue to the 19th century New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who maintained that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Across the frontiers of time and space, great windbags reach out to each other and touch, convinced that, through the magic of language they are able to convert very bad-smelling prawns into tasty jumbo shrimp.

PAH Thirteenth 2013 Article


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