Globe editorial: Quebec separatism is dormant, but the politics of division is more alive than ever

Globe editorial: Quebec separatism is dormant, but the politics of division is more alive than ever

There was a time when Quebec premiers fought for meaningful and important things.

During the Quiet Revolution, Liberal premier Jean Lesage broke the Catholic Church’s hold on the province’s education and health systems. In the 1970s, the Parti Québécois under René Lévesque rejected FLQ terrorism and insisted on a democratic nationalism movement.

Soon came the introduction of laws and government agencies designed to ensure the survival of the French language. Then came the two referendums, during which politicians on both sides fought for their visions of Canada and Quebec. The years between the two No votes saw Quebec’s refusal to sign the country’s repatriated Constitution, and the divisive debates around the failed constitutional accords of Meech Lake and Charlottetown.

All those wrenching events helped create the Quebec of today, where French is the mother tongue of 78 per cent of the population and 95 per cent of the people living there say they can carry on a conversation in the language.

As well, the separatist movement is largely dormant. The province’s governing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, has eschewed independence in favour of asking for more autonomy on specific issues, such as tax collection and immigration. The federal Bloc Québécois did well in the October federal election, but Leader Yves-François Blanchet said during the campaign that he is prepared to work with Ottawa in Quebec and Canada’s mutual interests.

All of this is good. But with a majority of Quebec voters largely satisfied with their place in Canada, something ugly has taken root. Under Premier François Legault, the contentious questions of language and identity that were central to the independence debates of the past have been repurposed as empty, mean-spirited wedge issues.

Bill 21, the law that prohibits certain newly hired public employees from wearing religious accessories on the job, is the leading indicator of this new political economy.

The law is a lie. It is based on the contorted claim that freedom of religion is an attack on the secular state; as if a teacher wearing a hijab or a policeman in a turban would put Quebec on a path to becoming a theocracy.

While efforts to overturn Bill 21 grind through the courts, the Legault government is also overhauling Quebec’s language and immigration policies, including a plan to deny government services in English to everyone in Quebec who can’t prove they are a “historical anglophone.”

This is a laughable and unworkable proposition, unless the government plans to issue identity cards to people who can prove their Anglo authenticity, and then create a database of those people so that when one arrives in the emergency room bleeding from the eyes, the proper authority can first verify that they are legally entitled to use English words to describe their injury to a doctor.

In conception and in practice, that plan is like the CAQ government’s now-abandoned promise to make immigrants take a values and French-language test within four years after their arrival on Quebec soil, and deport those who fail.

It was never going to work. Ottawa is responsible for deportations and would not have gone along. Instead, the CAQ announced last week that people who want to come to Quebec must first pass a test similar to the benign citizenship questionnaire given to immigrants in the rest of Canada.

The CAQ also backed down this week on a threat to immediately shut down a program that gives foreign students a fast track to permanent residency, after students who had come to the province in good faith complained about the unfairness of changing the rules in midstream.

Where Bill 21 is a concrete act of discrimination, these other moves have been symbolic. But they share a single message: That the CAQ government will divide people along lines of language and nationality in order to demonstrate that they are the true defenders of the purity of Quebec society.

Mr. Lévesque’s vision of a modern Quebec was of a place, inside or out of Canada, that embraced progressive values, defended human rights, and lived and died by democracy. His independence movement had its ugly moments, but it went well beyond merely dividing citizens into “nous” and “les autres.

Under Mr. Legault, that vision has been reduced to cheap Trumpian machinations designed to sow division in order to win the next election.