Hypocrisy in Quebec: from Bell Helicopter to Hérouxville

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By Lorenzo Fiorto

Huddled over personal-sized pitchers in one of Montreal’s neighbourhood pubs, a group of regulars is engaged in a lively discussion – half politics, half griping about life. One of the topics on tonight’s agenda is America’s recent decision to bar certain foreign nationals from working on defence contracts. Just a couple of weeks ago, 24 Bell Helicopter workers in Dorval were removed from sensitive US military contracts because of their national origins. At least two interns, a Venezuelan and an Arab man, were let go.

A middle-aged, balding anglophone seated at our table has the floor. “What right does the US have to tell Canada what it can and can’t do? These people can do the job; they should be allowed to work. That’s not how we do things here.” The sentiment is unanimous.

The regulars who frequent the pub are like a lot of Montrealers: more open to newcomers and more skeptical of the Bush agenda than citizens anywhere else in North America. Not that it’s perfect here, but when bombs dropped on Iraq in 2003, Montrealers came out to protest, in the middle of winter, in the largest numbers of any Canadian city. Montrealers are also the Canadians most likely to support the Kyoto accord and oppose the war in Afghanistan. In short, Montreal has the strongest resistance to political harmonization with the United States.

That’s why the news out of Hérouxville is so alarming.

Since Hérouxville and the other towns around it have no immigrants, and since their recently established code bans behaviour such as “stoning women,” the clamour is easy to dismiss as the product of isolated minds in sub-zero temperatures. But anonymous complaints about religious holidays for minorities in the school system, a poll (although far from being scientifically accurate) in which 59 percent of Quebec respondents described themselves as “racist,” and vandalism at a Muslim school form an increasingly clear picture: it’s not an isolated phenomenon.

The imam of one major Montreal mosque has suggested that the “accommodation debate” has thus far been restricted to rural areas rather than urban, and in Francophone circles rather than Anglophone. He’s wrong, but his comments are revealing nonetheless.

Predictions by La Presse and CTV News Montreal that the reasonable accommodation debate could become a major election issue, alongside sovereignty and health care, may have proven (despite the recent issue of a young female soccer playing being ejected for wearing a hijab). But thanks to the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), it is never far from the surface. With an issue like this, the Parti Québécois (PQ) stands to lose some rural votes – and talk of sovereignty would be the key to winning them back. Charest has directed the debate to a government commission, which in normal times represents the kiss of death for any problem that won’t go away.

But these are not normal times, and for the time being at least, the accommodation debate is here to stay.

Unfortunately, this means that as Quebecers turn inward, they’re talking less about the dire situation in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan and are less prone to protest. The lack of public pressure gives our government a freer hand to recruit soldiers, train them to kill and send them overseas to fight an enemy that resembles, at least superficially, the enemy at home.

For whether it’s Bell Helicopter or Hérouxville, whether the public schools or parliamentary institutions, the atmosphere has been poisoned. Québécois against immigrants, rural towns against the big city, sovereignty or a “nation within a united Canada” – Quebec society, bastion of progressive values, is being divided against itself.

Fortunately a basic level of decency still exists here in Montreal. Because regardless of who we are or how well we get along, we all shovel snow, go to work together, and strive for the same things in our daily lives– and so we understand each other much better than a collection of politically-motivated troublemakers could ever understand us.