“Little boxes, little boxes, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same,” that line from the Malvina Reynolds song made famous by the legendary Pete Seeger pretty much sums up where our society seems to be heading these days. Memes declaring that “My Canada” doesn’t include (your favourite “foreign” cultural practice goes here) abound on social media, as do spurious claims of plots to bring Sharia Law to Canada. It is a polarizing time where the outsider is reviled and feared and too many of us are falling for those claims of those who seek to divide us and force the assimilation of those we deem different.
Certainly there are cultural norms that we accept as fundamental to our identity as a nation. Freedom of expression, religion and association are the solid building blocks of our society—but these days this is only true of expressions, religions or associations that are the same as our own.
The separation of religion and state is, on its face, a laudable goal, but when it is utilized as a form of persecution of visible minorities it can take on a sinister cast and that is certainly the case of what is happening in Quebec with the passage of legislation that prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in public workplaces.
Quebec with its not entirely unfounded linguistic paranoia, being surrounded by the overwhelming anglo majority of the rest of Canada, not to mention the cultural bully that is America’s Hollywood (standard American anyone?) and media dominance, has fallen victim to a new form of xenophobia that threatens basic freedom from religious persecution—the very freedom that its legislation is touted as being crafted to prevent. In fact, the leader of the federal NDP, one of our major political parties, is disqualified from driving a public bus in Quebec by virtue of his headgear.
We are hurtling headlong into the realm of the absurd, a twilight zone where religious freedom means dressing, looking and speaking just like the majority. There is no rationale question that these legislative moves to “secularism” are aimed at one particular religion and set of cultural symbols. The hijab, while a standard of a very conservative form of Islam, is not referenced in the Quran. It is not religious, it is a cultural artifact, but it is clear the discourse in Quebec over secularism is focussed on that particular group.
Now, no Indigenous person can wear a feather and work for the government, no Jew can wear a skullcap while acting as a Crown prosecutor, no Sikh his turban, no nun her cross and we are not entirely sure where dreadlocks lie (orthodox or Rastafarian). This is not religious freedom, it is tyranny of the majority and prejudice masquerading as secularism and it is unconscionable in a free and democratic society.
Our nation just apologized for a residential school system that aimed at homogenizing Indigenous peoples and taking away their culture, religion and traditions. That system was labelled a cultural genocide. What is next in store for our country, ethnic cleansing? We are on a slippery slope.
Despite all the fear and linguistic xenophobia that has fueled Quebec politics for generations, Français remains alive and quite vibrant in La Belle Province thank you kindly—despite the latest concerns over bonjour-hi. We urge the people of Quebec to step back from those strategies that our British forebears used to marginalize those who were not built in the image of the Empire and used the King’s English. In the end it is a dark and lonely road that leads only to stultifying homogeneity unbefitting a vibrant and progressive culture.