This article is the translation of an article written for La Riposte socialiste, the paper of Marxists in Quebec.
The Sept. 9 English-language election debate resulted in an uproar that has taken over media coverage of the election in Quebec for the past week. Host Shachi Kurl asked Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet a question about Bill 21 on “secularism” and Bill 96 on the French language and racism. The result was an almost unanimous rally behind the Bloc Québécois and the CAQ to “defend Quebec,” with even the Quebec Liberals and Québec solidaire joining in. This can only have reactionary consequences.
What exactly did Ms. Kurl say? Here is the question:
“You denied that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as bills 96 and 21 which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”
Blanchet immediately denounced the question: “We were called racists and xenophobes by the host just as the show began.” The others all followed suit: Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh all denounced the question.
Quebec Premier François Legault also jumped in, saying, “The Quebec nation is under attack in its jurisdiction, in what is most important, the French language, in its values … [T]his is unacceptable!” In a rare scene, Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade even launched a petition against Quebec bashing. The members of the Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion demanding an apology from the organizers of the debate.
So how did the Bloc manage to create such a consensus behind it? To understand, one has to look at the context in which it was raised.
The identity nationalists’ reactionary crusade
Since the 1995 referendum, mass struggles in Quebec have almost always been about class issues. The struggle against austerity has been at the forefront throughout this period, and the two ruling parties, the Liberals and the PQ, suffered their worst electoral defeat in history in 2018. With the two traditional parties in disrepute, the CAQ has managed to rise to power by relying on a reactionary identity nationalism that falsely presents itself as defending “Quebec identity.”
This has manifested itself in the adoption of Bill 21. This law, which prevents people wearing religious symbols from working in certain public sector jobs, including teaching, was the culmination of the ongoing “debate” about religious symbols in Quebec that emerged out of the general context of rising Islamophobia in the Western world that followed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is truly pathetic that the Bloc Québécois, the CAQ and their friends are outraged that Bill 21 is being called discriminatory. They know it is. Everyone knows it: the CAQ had to use the notwithstanding clause to protect it! The CAQ would not have done this if they did not think the law was discriminatory. This discriminatory law should be fought by the entire labour movement.
The endless debates over religious symbols and so-called “secularism” have been a prime distraction for the establishment in Quebec. In the face of rising class struggle in the 2000s and 2010s, these ridiculous debates divert attention from austerity and allow the bosses’ parties to win the support of francophone workers on the backs of religious minorities. Fomenting this reactionary nationalism has served the ruling class well.
As for Bill 96, we are faced with another diversion by the CAQ and defended by the Bloc. After a year and a half of a mismanaged pandemic, what better way out for the CAQ than to present itself as the great defenders of the French language? Bill 96 will effectively reduce the provision of public services in English, particularly to anglophone or allophone immigrants who have been in Quebec for more than six months—which is, of course, a form of discrimination. And the consequences can only be to divide francophone and anglophone workers, to the benefit of the CAQ, without helping anyone learn French.
Following the rise of reactionary identity nationalism that the CAQ embodies in Quebec, the Bloc has experienced a resurgence. In the 2019 election, the Bloc entirely sidelined the issue of sovereignty, and simply played the megaphone for the CAQ and defender of Bill 21.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Bloc Québécois would do it again this year. It was obvious that the Bloc Québécois would not miss a single opportunity to make Bill 21 an election issue, that they would present any attack on this odious law as an attack on Quebec as a whole.
Since the beginning of the election, the Bloc has presented itself as the voice of “Quebec”. In the party platform, it is written that the party will fight accusations of racism “against a whole people”. This means raising an outcry whenever possible to any suggestion of racism in Quebec.
While defending a law that discriminates against religious minorities, identity nationalists are allergic to any accusation of racism made against them. But the facts are a stubborn thing.
On more than one occasion, the Bloc Québécois has used racism for political purposes. Bloc candidates have denied Islamophobia and made Islamophobic comments in the past; under Gilles Duceppe, the party went into battle against the niqab with racist anti-NDP ads; and Blanchet recently relayed an Islamophobic lie from the far-right media Rebel News about Liberal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra. The party pays lip service to the notion of systemic racism in general, but is outraged if anyone implies that it applies to Quebec society.
And this identity-based nationalism was reinforced by the attitude of the left and the labour movement.
Almost no one dares to denounce the divisions fomented by the CAQ and its friends. Even the leadership of Québec solidaire, which voted against Bill 21, has done almost nothing concrete to oppose it since. The party seems to have accepted the law, and even falls into the “none of your business” rhetoric of the CAQ and the Bloc. Manon Massé had stated in the past that “the question of Bill 21 belongs to Quebec, it belongs to Quebecers”. By repeating these words and remaining silent on Bill 21, the QS leadership is allowing the Bloc and the CAQ to pretend that there is a “consensus” behind it.
We explained several times that Bill 21 would not end the “debate” on “secularism” and that nationalist parties would continue to use this issue to divide and portray themselves as defenders of the French-speaking Quebec majority and its so-called “values”. Two years later, our perspective is fully confirmed. As long as the left and the labour movement do not fight back against the scapegoating of minorities for political purposes, the identity nationalists will continue their reactionary crusade.
This is why we are witnessing the sorry spectacle where the CAQ and the Bloc, two bourgeois parties that have nothing to offer the working class, can rally all classes of the “nation” behind them. What is happening now is the consequence of the fact that no serious movement has been organized against Bill 21 and that identity nationalism is silently tolerated.
The moderator Shachi Kurl gave the Bloc a real gift with her question. Journalists should not shy away from asking Blanchet about the discriminatory nature of Bill 21. But the wording of the question—conflating Bill 21 with Bill 96, two laws that should be criticized but are not comparable; using the term “distinct society” rather than “nation”; implying that all of Quebec supports these discriminatory laws—provided the identity nationalists with a perfect pretext to make a hue and cry over “Quebec bashing”.
Above all, by asking the Bloc to defend these laws and explain them “to those outside Quebec,” she is accepting the premise that the Bloc speaks for Quebec and that there is a consensus behind these laws. This is what the Bloc, the CAQ and their friends Martineau, Bock-Côté, and other identity nationalists in the media have been trying to do. Ms. Kurl thus plays into the hands of the identity nationalists.
The only winners in this kind of media-political circus around the national question are the bourgeois nationalists and the equally bourgeois federalists. On the one hand, the feeling of being attacked reinforces Quebec nationalist sentiment to the benefit of the Bloc and the CAQ. On the other, the appearance of unity in Quebec behind the racist Bill 21 strengthens Anglo-chauvinism in Canada, as the bourgeois and the media in English Canada portray “Quebec” as more racist. The uproar has led to a significant rise in voting intentions for the Bloc Québécois in the most recent post-debate poll. The losers are the victims of racism and the people fighting against Bill 21, and the workers in general as class issues are sidelined. The result of this circus is entirely reactionary.
The left and the labour movement in Quebec must stop following the lead of identity nationalists. Rather than falling into their traps, our first role must be to denounce Bill 21 and the CAQ and Bloc’s attempts to win over francophone workers on the backs of minorities, and their attempt to minimize or deny racism in Quebec. If the left and the labour movement refuse to do so, the Bloc and the CAQ will continue to succeed in presenting themselves as the great defenders of Quebec. There is no worse scenario than that.
There are two Quebecs
Moreover, it is not only in Quebec that bourgeois nationalists want to deny or minimize systemic racism. In Canada too, at a time when there is widespread denunciation of the continued legacy of colonial racism against Indigenous peoples (in the wake of the discovery of the bodies of Indigenous children this summer), Anglo-chauvinists have come to the fore to argue that Canada is not a racist country. In both cases, we see an attempt to absolve the ruling class in Canada and Quebec of the racism it foments in various forms.
There is no more or less racism in Quebec than in Canada or elsewhere. Anyone who implies this falls into Anglo-chauvinism, and actively undermines the fight against racism in Quebec.
In both English Canada and Quebec, capitalist politicians and their friends in the media try to keep the debate going about whether “Quebec” or “Canada” is racist. These debates are sterile. Racism exists because it is profitable. The only people who benefit from the oppression of Indigenous peoples, Anglo-chauvinism, Islamophobia and discrimination in general are the bosses. Racism foments conflicts between different layers of the working class, and all workers lose out.
In reality, there are two Quebecs. There is the Quebec of the workers, and the Quebec of the bosses. It is the same thing in English Canada. There is the Canada of the workers, and the Canada of the bosses.
In Quebec, our first task is to denounce our own oppressors and exploiters. The CAQ has managed to come to power by using identity nationalism, and has enshrined discrimination on the basis of religion in law. The CAQ, and the Bloc in its wake, hide behind the nation and attempt to unite all Quebecers faced with the “Anglo” enemy. It is frankly shameful that Bill 21 is the subject of an outcry that includes Québec solidaire, with the CAQ and the Bloc leading the way. We must break this unity, and fight to unite all workers of all backgrounds, across Quebec and Canada, in a struggle against the ruling classes of both nations and their racism.