Thursday, August 21, 2014

Quebec Tribalism Fades

 During Pauline Marois' 18-month reign, even the most petty ethnic or linguistic dispute became grist for widespread anxiety and bitterness — because the PQ was desperate to seize on any pretext to fire up the nativists and separatists who comprised its core supporters.

Most of my readers are barely aware of the tribalism promoted by politically driven individuals in the Canadian province of Quebec for the past two generations. I suspect that streak had now completely run its course with the demise a few months past of the eighteen month long minority government of Ms Marois who was the quintessential true believer in the dream.

Her tenure showed all just how low the dream could go and she has been washed from office and from this item, washed from the cultural tapestry of Quebec itself. That all serious French parents how ensure that their children speak clear English quickly is really the final nail in the whole separatist coffin.

Quebec is not becoming more English, but everyone is making sure that they can accept job offers in Alberta or New York for that matter. That alone puts governance on notice to clean up their act. As well the Mob controlled contracting cartel in Quebec has been decisively broken.

Petty language spats have all but vanished in Quebec since Marois’ ouster

Jonathan Kay | August 15, 2014

This week, my National Post colleague, Chris Selley, notes that “Quebec’s cultural protectionists are in another embarrassing uproar.” This time, the subject isn’t Anglicized pasta or some fresh hijab scare, but rather a Montreal rap band (the Dead Obies) that performs in a mix of French and English. At least two columnists are appalled by this mash-up of Canada’s two official languages: Christian Rioux of Le Devoir, who describes it as a symptom of cultural “suicide,” and Mathieu Bock-Côté ofLe Journal de Montréal, who calls it a sign of “cultural autism.”

In regards that last phrase, it might be pointed out to M. Bock-Côté that some of the stereotypical characteristics associated with autistic individuals — a propensity to hold forth extemporaneously on obscure and tedious subjects, a lack of self-awareness, anti-social tendencies, etc. — are all prominent hallmarks of obsessive cultural nationalists. Some folks like to go out to the train tracks and count the number of passing freight cars. Others turn on the radio and count the number of English words. Which kind are you, M. Bock-Côté?

Chris Selley calls Messrs. Bock-Côté and Rioux “irrelevant middle-aged men shaking their fists at their radios.” The same might well be said for theJournal de Montreal’s Gilles Proulx, who has taken towarning Quebecers about Jewish plots to dominate the world economy. Jews can “make any government submit” to their will, he wrote in a column about Gaza. And then on the radio, he added that when Jews “take economic control,” it serves to “provoke the hatred of local nations, whether it is in Spain, for example, with the Inquisition, or again later with Adolf Hitler.”

But the only reason that such kooks can be written off as “irrelevant” is that Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois got the boot in April’s provincial election. If Ms. Marois and her values-charter lieutenant, Bernard Drainville, were still in power, how would they react to the Dead Obies controversy?

I doubt they’d be dumb enough to try to propose actually legislating against Franglais rap. On the other hand, this is the party that wet its collective pants over the sight of pre-adolescent soccer players wearing turbans, and then tried to convince us that Ontario-born frat dudes at McGill were conspiring to “steal” the Quebec election. (Those Anglos — always provoking the hatred of local nations.) So it’s hard to say.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Montrealers this month — both in Montreal itself, and in Ogunquit, Maine, a beach town where “Je Me Souviens” graces every second or third licence plate in many hotel parking lots. It’s quite amazing to observe the difference that just four months can make.

During the 18-month Marois reign, even the most petty ethnic or linguistic dispute became grist for widespread anxiety and bitterness — because the PQ was desperate to seize on any pretext to fire up the nativists and separatists who comprised its core supporters. It’s hard to remember a comparably ugly period in the political culture of any province. Now that Ms. Marois is gone, on the other hand, the whole province is free to roll their eyes at the likes of M. Bock-Côté. The newly elected Liberal Premier, Philippe Couillard, has no appetite for this nonsense. His focus properly lies on kickstarting the province’s (sluggish) economy and reducing its (massive) debt. Mixed-language rap music and the alleged scheming of the Elders of Zion don’t interest him.

Much has been written about the PQ’s insidious impact on Quebec politics. What has been less remarked upon — in other provinces, at least — is how thoroughly the shrill nastiness of Ms. Marois and her administration seeped into the everyday life of ordinary Quebecers. On the subway, in restaurants, at gas stations, interactions between English and French, Jew and gentile, Muslim and non-Muslim, became more fraught. In one notorious case, at the cafeteria of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, a worker became so enraged when a customer refused to speak French that she allegedly assaulted him with a thrown tomato sandwich. English-language social media and radio call-in shows were full of similar stories. Then came the April 7 election, and suddenly the stories stopped.

During a recent trip to Montreal, I stopped by my old childhood home on Dufferin Road, in the city’s heavily Anglo Hampstead area. The couple that moved in 35 years ago, Nina and Louis, still lives there, and we’ve stayed friendly. He’s a lawyer. She’s a nurse who does shifts at the Jewish General.

In 2013 and early 2014, she told me, banal workplace disagreements — a discussion over who was getting what shifts, for example — began degenerating into tribalized conflicts between French and English. (In my friend’s case, it was alleged that she was getting choice assignments because the managing nurse was a fellow Anglo.) People who’d worked together for decades suddenly were seeing one another through Bernard Drainville’s paranoid language lens.

The only upside, she tells me, was the magnified spirit of solidarity among Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu medical professionals who had been put on notice that they would no longer be permitted to wear highly visible religious indicators under Drainville’s aborted secularism charter.

At the time, we were making plans to move away if the PQ got their majority,” she told me. “To British Columbia, maybe. Or Ottawa. Practically everyone on this block was considering similar plans. And then the election came, and suddenly our anxieties disappeared. Poof. Just like that.”

You walk into a store now, and the salesperson says ‘bonjour, hi,’ and everyone just smiles at one another like it’s normal — which it is,” her husband Louis tells me. Yet that was exactly the sort of thing that made the PQ hit the roof”: Back in February, PQ language minister Diane De Courcy declared that if her party won a majority, she would lead the charge to stamp out symptoms of “institutionalized bilingualism,” and cited the use of “Bonjour / Hi” as a specific example.

This general sense of crankiness afflicted relationships among Francophones, as well. During a lunch at Pendeli’s, around the corner from my old home (acknowledged by many to be one of the city’s finest pizzerias), Lise Ravary of the Journal de Montreal told me that workplace tempers ran so high on the issue of the PQ’s secularism charter that the newspaper’s management had to intervene when colleagues began subjecting Ms. Ravary (who is anti-charter) to ad hominem abuse. “This was a level of personal conflict you didn’t even see during the last referendum,” she tells me. “At the same time, I suddenly wasn’t welcome at certain book launches and TV shows. People I’d known for half a lifetime wouldn’t talk to me.”

Then came the election,” she adds. “Now that it’s all over, we’re all friends again.”

Unfortunately, though the Liberals’ victory in April has helped repair friendships, it hasn’t supplied a magical elixir for fixing the province’s economy. Parts of Montreal’s downtown continue to betray an alarmingly high commercial vacancy rate. But there is a widespread sense that, at the very least, the province averted the full-blown economic meltdown that might have unfolded if Ms. Marois had won re-election. Tens of thousands of wealthy Montrealers might have fled, taking billions with them.

Leon Elfassy, a Hampstead town councillor who focuses on urban development, told me he already is seeing a noticeable uptick. “The vibe is better, and now some people are more motivated to invest — to put down deeper roots,” he told me. “Many of my constituents, who had been looking to go down [Highway] 401, feel at ease with Couillard. Suddenly, we’re looking at a lot of real-estate projects, including Hampstead’s first high-rise condo [Le Belvedere Hampstead, which formerly had been put on hold because of a lack of buyer interest]. During my two-and-a-half mandates in Hampstead, I’ve never seen so much activity.”

By sheer coincidence, the PQ’s election loss coincided with a lot of other welcome developments: the end of winter, the onset of Montreal’s festival season and a new era of stability at city hall thanks to the election of Denis Coderre as mayor in late 2013.

If you ask around the business community, there has been a weight taken off of everyone’s shoulders,” says Dan Delmar, a radio host at Montreal’s CJAD and a managing partner at a communications firm. “In my business, I had calls that suddenly started coming in — clients that had waited for a while to spend money. They’re now back online.”

On the negative side, he tells me, many Anglos and ethnic voters haven’t quite stopped gloating over Ms. Marois’ downfall. “A lot of folks remain very bitter about her government,” he says. “Even weeks after the election, I was still getting all sorts of messages about her. You can’t underestimate the pain she caused. This was a woman who had been in power for a year and a half, and had never appeared on CJAD, which is basically the English-language voice of Montreal. She bypassed the whole Anglo media.”

It was a really strange road the province went down during those 18 months,” Ms. Ravary tells me. Even for tolerant-minded Francophones who rejected the secularism charter and had little fear of the English language, Pauline Marois and her ilk elicited a disquieting sense of internal conflict. “On the one hand, we were being sent this message that opposing the PQ and the charter meant we were being disloyal to ‘the tribe,’ ” Ms. Ravary tells me. “But at the same time, we knew deep down that the whole thing was damaging to Quebec’s soul, and an embarrassment. So we were torn.

But that’s over,” she says. “Now it’s about jobs, infrastructure, pension reform, confronting the unions. The real stuff. It’s like we all suddenly woke up.”

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