Four years after the Parti Québecois’s (PQ)’s infamous Quebec Charter of Values, Philippe Couillard’s Liberals have just adopted their own law on the separation of church and state. This law will prohibit anyone from giving or receiving a public service with their face covered. In reality, this means that the burqa and the niqab will be banned. This law clearly demonstrates the glaring hypocrisy of the Quebec Liberals, who have proven that they are no better than the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and the PQ by using Islamophobia for political ends.
You would have to be blind to not see that this entire debate about religious accommodation and secularism has created a climate that breeds Islamophobia and racism. In particular, the CAQ and the PQ have tried to make political capital by attacking religious minorities in one way or another. Little more than a year ago, Jean-François Lisée emphasized the crucial importance of holding a debate on banning the burkini, burqa and the niqab in the public spaces, while François Legault of the CAQ launched an offensive against the chador. The shooting in Quebec City this past January was the most tragic testimony to the Islamophobia and racism stirred up by the major parties.
With the rise of identitarian nationalism and the racist positions of the PQ and the CAQ, the Liberals positioned themselves as the defenders of immigrants and oppressed minorities. This past August, following a demonstration of La Meute in Quebec City, Philippe Couillard came out with the following surprising statement: “In this conflict, in a confrontation between people who advocate subtly or not, racism and xenophobia, and those who oppose it… you have to choose a side. I have chosen mine, it is to oppose racism and xenophobia.”
As well, last July, the Liberals launched a public consultation on systemic racism, which was set to start in September but has been continuously delayed. The Minister of Immigration, Katherine Weil, stated that “the struggle against racism and discrimination is a priority.” Does this mean that the Liberals are in the camp of the anti-racists?
This anti-racist fervor of the PLQ, however, cooled off in October after the Liberals suffered a crushing defeat in the by-election in Louis-Hébert, a seat which they had held since 2003. This defeat has been attributed to the consultation on systemic racism, which was poorly received by the voters.
Bill 62 has revealed the true face of the Quebec Liberals. In addition to this bill, they have now completely dropped the public consultation on systemic racism. When he canceled the consultation on whether systemic racism exists, Immigration Minister David Heurtel stated that he is “not here to tell you what exists and what doesn’t exist.” With the CAQ rising in the polls and the defeat in the byelection, it seems that the Liberals are now opportunistically changing their tune. We can therefore see that they do not take the defense of immigrants and religious minorities seriously, but only defend them when they can use it to make political gains. Inversely, when the Liberals believe that they can gain votes by attacking them, they change their message as easily as someone would change their clothes.
The initial bill, tabled in the summer of 2015, had the supposed goal of sanctioning the religious neutrality of the state in Quebec. It had the aim of forbidding anyone giving or receiving a public service from covering their face, including at universities or schools. However, while pretending to be all about “the religious neutrality of the state”, this bill openly protected Catholic symbols, most notably the crucifix installed in the National Assembly. It is rather ironic to grant preferential treatment to the Catholic religion in a law that claims to defend religious neutrality!
This past August, amendments were added to make the law apply to municipalities, metropolitan communities and public transportation. Clearly, this means that women wearing the burqa or the niqab will not be able to take the bus! This is in fact what the Minister of Justice, Stéphanie Vallée, confirmed when she said that “To take public transportation, you must have your face uncovered.”
“Reasons of communication, identification and security” have in this way been invoked to justify banning covering one’s face. With Halloween just around the corner, people who are disguised or masked will have to use their cars or take a taxi to get around! We will also be asked to remove our scarves, foggy glasses, and tuques when we take the bus in the middle of February! But let’s be clear, this law certainly doesn’t target poor Quebeckers freezing in the winter or young people celebrating Halloween! Under the guise of security, communication and identification (What does this have to do with religious neutrality?), Muslim women are again being attacked. The Quebec Liberals have revealed their disgusting hypocrisy. This law is really no different than the PQ’s Quebec Charter of Values.
Divide and rule
But this debate didn’t fall from the sky, and makes perfect sense from the point of view of the ruling class. The last period in Quebec has seen the class struggle return with a vengeance. It seems like every year there is a major strike movement of the students, public or private workers, or some sort of left-wing mass movement. Following the incredible Québécois Spring of 2012, the ruling class was terrified. It is therefore not at all surprising that the PQ, a fully capitalist party, introduced the poisonous debate surrounding the Quebec Charter of Values after defeating the Liberals in the 2012 election.
This debate was a convenient cover and distraction from the fact that the PQ was at the service of the bosses, continuing the austerity politics of the hated Liberal government of Jean Charest. In 2015 the public sector workers entered the scene launching the biggest one-day public sector strike in the history of the province, with almost half a million workers on strike. So why not instead debate endlessly what people are wearing on their heads? This is of course preferable for the capitalists, as they do not want people discussing the fact that regardless of which political party has been in power, the government has faithfully attacked the students and workers and faithfully given tax breaks and bailouts to their corporate friends.
This “debate” on religious signs has for years been one of the main tools used by the establishment to divert attention away from the austerity and other unpopular measures and to divide the working class on religious or national lines. Bill 62 is no exception. According to a recent poll, 87 per cent of Quebeckers are in favour of this bill. Does this mean that the Québécois are all racists, or that the Québécois are more racist than others as we hear from time to time? No! This idea is completely misguided. The key point is to remember that the entire political establishment has been stirring up this completely artificial debate on the ‘problem’ of secularism and religious symbols. In order to do this, they are basing themselves on the memory of the struggle for the separation of church and state in the 1960s, which is deeply imbedded in the consciousness of a large number of Quebeckers, a legacy of the Quiet Revolution. This old struggle, which was originally led against the reactionary Catholic church and its allies in the ruling class, has since been revived by the latter to pit one section of the population against another. This debate today has nothing to do with the struggles of the 1960s. This struggle for secularism was directed against the Catholic Church’s hold on education and health care, at a time when it was in charge of running schools and hospitals. Today we are made to believe that a debate on the right of a hundred or so women to take the bus is a debate on secularism! The game of the Liberals, the PQ and the CAQ is clear: they are not really interested in secularism. All they are interested in is getting more votes by bashing on a minority of Muslim women.
However, the wave of solidarity following the right-wing terrorist attack on a Quebec mosque this past January showed that hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers are fed up with racism and Islamophobia. What is needed is a clear leadership given to this mass of people who are looking to fight against racism. The workers’ movement needs to openly denounce the racist politics of the establishment and work to build a mass movement against all of these attempts to divide us.
No to Islamophobia! Only class unity can defeat racism!
Not surprisingly, the CAQ and the PQ criticized the bill arguing that it does not go far enough and that we need to be stricter on the question of religious symbols. PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée rejected any possibility of religious accommodation, declaring that “apart from Batman and Spider-Man, it is a joke that all those who have religious reasons will be able to have their face covered.” Nathalie Roy of the CAQ said that “a state official now has the right to work in the niqab, but in the evening when she goes home, she will have to take off her niqab to get on the bus.” Both the PQ and the CAQ believe that wearing a niqab should also be prohibited at work for public sector employees.
So far, Québec solidaire unfortunately has had quite a timid response to this hypocritical racist, Islamophobic bill. The party leaders so far have focused their critique of the bill on the fact that it doesn’t touch the crucifix in the National Assembly. Other than that, they have said that the bill is ridiculous and inapplicable, stating that the government prefers to “legislate the clothing worn by a minority of Quebeckers,” without clearly pointing out the Islamophobic, racist character of this bill. Unfortunately, thus far, QS has missed a fantastic opportunity to unmask the hypocritical Liberals and undermine their support on the island of Montreal by clearly putting themselves forward as the only party that will defend minorities against the racist identitarian nationalism. In reality, QS has fallen for the trap of this debate on secularism that is being used by the three mainstream parties to cynically attack minorities in order to make political capital.
This law and this debate in fact has nothing to do with secularism. The goal of this law, as with this whole debate, is to create a toxic atmosphere of division within working class communities to distract and weaken the movement against austerity and direct the palpable anger in society against immigrants and refugees instead of against the capitalist class. This will give a free pass to racists to oppress Muslim women publicly and will divide and weaken the union movement.
In reality, Bill 62 is just the latest in a long list of racist episodes in Quebec. This comes right after the hysterical media-manufactured campaign against the Haitian asylum seekers fleeing Donald Trump, and the news that the police and prosecutors refused to lay terrorism charges against the right-wing fanatic Alexandre Bissonnette after he killed six people earlier this year simply because they were Muslim. Germinating within this toxic atmosphere are far-right groups like La Meute, Storm Alliance, and Atalante. Disgusting xenophobic attacks against the Muslim community are more and more common.
This has got to stop. We cannot rely on the police, the courts or the corporate media. After hypocritically positioning themselves as the defenders of immigrants against the racist nationalists, the Liberals have again clearly demonstrated that they are prepared to sacrifice any principles for electoral opportunism. This demonstrates more clearly than ever that we cannot rely on benevolent capitalist parties to fight racism. Only we, the working class, can defeat racism, and we need to do so with our own methods.
In reality, this law is nothing but a piece of paper. A united mass movement of workers refusing to apply this law would make it meaningless. We cannot let them divide us! We have the duty to defend minorities that are being cynically attacked by the establishment. The unions have a fundamental role to play in this movement.
The president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN, or Confederation of National Trade Unions), Jacques Létourneau, published an open letter in September on the rise of racism in which he stated that “the union movement has the responsibility to counter the marked increase in hatred and intolerance.” We completely agree with this statement: but it is time to pass from words to actions!
The demonstration against hatred and racism on Nov. 12 will be a good start. Unions should endorse this demonstration and mobilize their members en masse in order to make a demonstration of force of the workers’ movement against racism. In addition, public sector workers need to push their leaders to denounce this law.
As the establishment targets Muslim women, the workers’ movement must set an example and defeat this movement with its own methods—refusing, purely and simply, to put this law into practice. That refusal, combined with a mass campaign of civil disobedience of people refusing to take off their face coverings, will force the government to back down.
In this way, we can show in practice that workers of all stripes have more in common with each other than the differences that are being cynically exploited by the ruling class and its allies.
No to Islamophobia!
Unions must defy Bill 62!
Only the united working class can defeat racism!