Roger writing the LAWmag
28
Oct 2007

Tinderbox Law-Making: Quebec in Transition comme d'habitude

(Montreal) Quebec is changing. It has always been a "distinct society or, as the natives prefer to call it, a "nation". It seems firmly on a path ... but to where, no-one knows.

In the aftermath of two failed referendums to separate from Canada, both lost by thin margins, Quebec is searching for itself and the effect on legislation is chaotic.

In early October, dentist Mahmoud Raisi, practising for four years and with 2,000 clients, lost his license because he failed, for the third time, a written French language test (he speaks it fluently).

Dr. Raisi works in Aylmer, a residential suburb of Ottawa, but on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River.

dental toolsHis predicament highlights a feature of Quebec law which gives English Canada s shiver: in order to obtain a practise license in Quebec, you have to pass provincial French-language proficiency exams. What the accent circumflex has to do with extracting a molar has yet to be explained.

The laws or regulations might not pass muster if ever challenged on constitutional grounds - at least before Canada's Supreme Court - but worse, they set up a political hurdle against the free market economies so vital to international trade and professional mobility.

This fascination with government control of language has already created a Mad Hatter school system, with right to English school enrolment so complex one needs a slide rule to determine eligibility.

The virus is a statute called the Charter of the French Language, which unequivocally states that "French is the official language of Québec".

The government has language police, enforcement officers of the watchdog Office québécois de la langue française.

The law is far-reaching:

  • "Contracts pre-determined by one party, contracts containing printed standard clauses, and the related documents, must be drawn up in French. They may be drawn up in another language as well at the express wish of the parties.
  • "Firms names must be in French."

What’s unique is that even as it scurries about putting out the fires of English language intrusion, unstoppable with the leaks of trade, travel, television, music and the Internet, Quebec also faces an increasingly eclectic cultural mix, with immigrants arriving from everywhere. The latest challenges are those that proudly and overtly wear religion on their shoulders, literally, such as Muslim women and their burkas, immigrating to Quebec in record numbers

One little town, Hérouxville – population, 1,300 - went so far as to adopt a charter that is aimed directly at Koran-thumpers:

  • "We consider that men and women are of the same value. Having said this, we consider that a woman can; drive a car, vote, sign checks, dance, decide for herself, speak her peace, dress as she sees fit respecting of course the democratic decency, walk alone in public places, study, have a job, have her own belongings and anything else that a man can do. These are our standards and our way of life.
  • "However, we consider that killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life.
  • "We listen to music, we drink alcoholic beverages in public or private places, we dance and at the end of every year we decorate a tree with balls and tinsel and some lights. This is normally called "Christmas Decorations" or also "Christmas Tree" letting us rejoice in the notion of our national heritage and not necessarily a religious holiday. These festivities are authorized in public, schools, and institutions and also in private.
  • "In our schools certified men and women teach our children. The women or men teachers can teach boys or girls with no sexual discrimination. They do not have to dress any different to accomplish their tasks. In our schools the children cannot carry any weapons real or fake, symbolic or not.
  • "You may not hide your face as to be able to identify you while you are in public. The only time you may mask or cover your face is during Halloween, this is a religious traditional custom at the end of October celebrating all Saints Day, where children dress up and go door to door begging for candy and treats. All of us accept to have our picture taken and printed on our driver’s permit, health care card and passports. A result of democracy.
  • "No law or work condition imposes the employer to supply a place of prayer or the time during the working day for this activity. You will also see men and women working side by side. We wear safety helmets on work sites, when required by law."

Ouch!

But what Hérouxville shouts, the Quebec Government whispers.

Roaming about Quebec is a commission of inquiry "sur les pratiques d’accommodement relies aux differences culturelles".

One of the commissioners is Gerard Bouchard, brother of former Quebec premier and hardened separatist Lucien Bouchard.

The Commission is getting an earful from Quebeckers who resent the state’s bending over backwards to accommodate immigrating cultures.

One engineer told the Commission o October 25 that "we’ve taken the crucifix out of our schools just to replace it with hijabs and kirpans".

All this as the separatist party, and presently a minority in the Legislature, le Parti quebeçois tabled opposition bills #195 and 196, which a majority of French-speaking Quebeckers support but which minority groups, like Jewish and English communities decry, using words like "Klu Klux Klan" and "racism", this latter remark from the National Post.

The bills, tabled on October 18, 2007 and which have little hope of passing, shoot a large canon ball across the bow of the governing Liberals, and calls for a Quebec citizenship and a unique constitution, usually reserved for states which have international standing. Bill 195 uses the word "nation" repeatedly in reference to Quebec.

In any other province, this type of war-talk would be significantly unsettling, scare away tourism and investment and devastate an economy.

But not in Quebec where it’s business as usual.

For the visitor, the fast cardiac-arrest pulse to provincial politics and law-making is fascinating. Combined with the home-style meat pie sold in local diners, it creates a yearning to stay put.

However, given the volatility of the issues on the table – immigration and nation-building – nary of those same tourists would miss his flight out.

References:

The Montreal Gazette, October 24-26, 2007
► Quebec Dentist Barred From Practising After Failing French Test, CBC News at cbc.ca, 20 SEPT 2007
Office quebecois de la langue francaise at olf.gouv.qc.ca
► Herouxville Town Charter at herouxville-quebec.blogspot.com
Journal de Montreal, October 26, 2007
canoe.ca/dossiers/accommodements
Loi sur l’accommodement quebecoise at blogue.pq.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/pl-195.pdf
► Quebec’s National Assembly at assnat.qc.ca/eng

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