Workers Vanguard No. 1036
13 December 2013
No to Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman Charter of Quebec Values!
The following article originally appeared in Spartacist Canada No. 179 (Winter 2013/2014), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste.
The Charter of Quebec Values introduced by Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois government has fuelled a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry. Cynically touted as a defense of secularism and equality between men and women, it would ban the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by anyone who works in public or publicly-funded institutions—from hospitals to daycare centres, nursing homes, schools and government offices. Among those in the firing line are Jews who wear kippas and turbaned Sikhs. But the prime targets are Muslim women workers who wear the headscarf (hijab).
The draft law (Bill 60), formally introduced by the bourgeois-nationalist PQ on November 7, is even more draconian than the proposals announced two months earlier. Workers in private companies that do business with the government or receive a government subsidy would also be banned from wearing religious symbols, while an opt-out clause for municipalities and universities has been cut back severely. The PQ also plans to bar the tiny number of Muslim women in Quebec who wear the full-face veil (niqab) from receiving government services.
Emboldened by the PQ’s moves, the bigots have crawled out from under their rocks. “I see this tension and these hateful glances directed towards us,” said Badia Senouci, an Algerian-born immigrant who has lived in Quebec for 14 years. While shopping at a Quebec City mall, Senouci was accosted by another woman who, citing the Charter, demanded she remove her headscarf and change her religion. When her 18-year-old son intervened the woman spat in his face. In Saguenay, racists splattered what they claimed was pig’s blood on a mosque. A middle-aged man on a Montreal bus was captured on video ranting at a hijab-wearing woman to remove her headscarf. Defiantly she shot back, “Marois is giving you the courage.”
Bill 60 is the poisoned fruit of more than a decade of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant witchhunting whipped up by capitalists internationally as part of their endless “war on terror.” It draws direct inspiration from anti-Muslim laws now on the books in France and other European countries. In Quebec as elsewhere, the rulers seek to scapegoat immigrants and other minorities for the immiseration that is being visited on working people and the poor. From Paris to Athens and beyond, openly racist and even fascist forces are gaining influence as the attacks on jobs, living standards and social programs intensify.
Crass electoral calculations are also at play in Quebec. The PQ, which currently runs a minority government, wants to woo conservative francophone voters away from the rightist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), especially in the regions outside Montreal which have few immigrants. The Catholic church has only a shadow of its former influence in Quebec, but reactionary Catholic-inspired nationalism (“our heritage”) still has traction in such areas. In 2007 the PQ lost official opposition status to the upstart right-wing nationalist Action Démocratique du Québec (now part of the CAQ) amid an earlier wave of anti-immigrant hysteria. Meanwhile, the péquistes are covering their other flank by mobilizing feminists and secular intellectuals to give the Charter a “progressive” veneer.
The Charter of Values is aimed not against the oppression of women at the hands of religion, but against private religious beliefs—and against the believers themselves. Marxists are atheists and fighters for women’s liberation. We understand that the veil, whether worn voluntarily or under duress, is a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. At the same time, we oppose all efforts by the capitalist state to ban or restrict this and other personal religious symbols. We reject the lie that such racist and discriminatory bans have anything to do with “protecting” women or promoting the integration of immigrants. On the contrary, they can only serve to deepen the social isolation and oppression of Muslim women by driving them from the workplace and from access to public services. We say: Down with racist exclusions! No to the PQ’s Bill 60!
Ottawa’s Grotesque Hypocrisy
The announcement of the Charter of Values was predictably met with anti-Quebec demagogy in English Canada. From the right-wing National Post to the liberal Toronto Star, editorial pages dripped with indignation at the scourge of racism…in Quebec. Tory cabinet minister Jason Kenney railed that the PQ is playing the “politics of division by attacking minority communities.” Canada, he claimed, “is a model to the world because of our pluralism, because of our tradition of unity in diversity.”
This is the same Canadian government that has overseen the deportations of immigrants and refugees in unprecedented numbers. It is the same government that six years ago tried to bar women wearing the niqab from voting in federal elections, and two years ago banned them from taking the citizenship oath. Shameless hypocrisy has always been a hallmark of the Canadian ruling class, whose state was built on the destruction of aboriginal societies and the forcible suppression of the national rights of the francophone Québécois.
The English Canadian rulers portray Quebec nationalism as uniquely xenophobic and intolerant—a truly brazen charge considering Ottawa’s own record of witchhunting Muslims under the “war on terror.” From Canada’s full participation in the bloody occupation of Afghanistan to helping to deliver Maher Arar to his Syrian torturers at the behest of Washington, their ongoing campaign of frame-ups, detentions and “no-fly” lists is a sustained assault on the rights of everyone.
and the Quiet Revolution
For their part, the PQ nationalists are cynically manipulating the broad support for secularism and women’s rights in Quebec in the service of racist reaction. Introducing Bill 60 in the National Assembly, PQ cabinet minister Bernard Drainville claimed outrageously that “the Charter of Values will be a source of harmony and cohesion for Quebec,” adding: “It is part of the process of secularization that began with the Quiet Revolution.”
In the late 19th century, American novelist Mark Twain described Montreal as a town where “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” The Catholic church exercised an iron grip on francophone Quebec well into the next century, controlling social institutions from hospitals to schools, all with the support of the anglophone capitalists. Under Maurice Duplessis, who ran Quebec for nearly two decades until 1959, clerical dominance was reinforced by naked state repression. But Quebec’s “Great Darkness,” as it is still known, was shattered in the 1960s through deepgoing social struggle.
The so-called Quiet Revolution, which was fuelled in large part by opposition to national oppression, did throw off Quebec’s clerical shackles, to the immense benefit of women in particular. It was also a period of sharp class struggles which saw the advance of a highly organized and combative Québécois labour movement. These struggles peaked with the April-May 1972 general strike, when workers took over entire industrial towns. But the militant labour movement became subordinated to a newly emergent francophone bourgeoisie that gradually displaced the former Anglo overlords.
The federal government met the rise of struggle in Quebec with repression, highlighted by the military occupation of Montreal during the 1970 “October Crisis.” For their part, the English Canadian labour misleaders and the NDP social democrats were hostile to the aspirations of the Québécois workers, and their “united Canada” chauvinism served to drive the Quebec working class into the arms of its “own” national capitalists. The Quebec labour bureaucrats soon began to call for support to the PQ, which formed its first government in 1976. By the end of that decade, the period of labour and social radicalism in Quebec had come to an end. For more than three decades now, the PQ nationalists have alternated with the federalist Liberal Party in administering capitalism in Quebec, including through harsh austerity attacks against the workers.
Nationalism and chauvinism inevitably foster racism against immigrants and ethnic minorities. To go forward in their struggles against the ravages of the capitalist profit system, the working people must be united across national, racial and ethnic lines. But the working class in this country is, and has long been, divided along national lines, profoundly undermining its ability to wage such struggles. For this reason, we Marxists advocate independence for Quebec. By taking the national question off the agenda, this would create far better conditions for the workers to see that their real enemies are their own respective capitalist exploiters—not the workers of the other nation or ethnic and religious minorities.
One left-wing Quebec blogger aptly characterized the PQ Charter as an “Islamophobic hydra disguised as a secular Prince Charming and a feminist Sleeping Beauty” (marcbonhomme.com, 28 October). Its provisions have led to sharp divides among bourgeois nationalists, in the unions and in Quebec’s influential feminist milieu.
Former PQ premiers Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau both criticized the Charter. The only remaining Bloc Québécois MP [Member of Parliament] from Montreal, Maria Mourani, was expelled from the Bloc caucus for publicly opposing it. In the labour movement, the SFPQ public-sector union quickly endorsed the PQ legislation, while the Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement (FAE), which represents about a third of Quebec teachers, denounced it. FAE president Sylvain Mallette told the press: “We won’t go on a witch hunt to see who wears a hijab, kippa or cross.... We will defend the right of our members to work.”
Montreal has seen rival, near-weekly demonstrations for and against the Charter. The largest anti-Charter protest drew at least 10,000, chiefly Muslims, into the streets on September 14. Six weeks later, a “March of the Janettes”—named for pioneer feminist, author and TV personality Janette Bertrand, now in her 80s—brought out a similar number of Charter supporters. Waving Quebec flags, the crowd broke out into the unofficial nationalist anthem, Gens du Pays. Among the rally organizers were Martine Desjardins, a leader of last year’s student strike, and media personality Julie Snyder, the wife of Pierre Karl Péladeau, the notorious union-busting former CEO of Quebecor and Sun Media. Earlier this year, the PQ government appointed Péladeau to head Hydro-Québec, the iconic nationalized energy company, and he now sits in on select cabinet meetings.
Quebec’s main feminist group, the Fédération des Femmes du Québec (FFQ—Quebec Federation of Women), says it “vigorously” opposes banning women wearing religious garb from government jobs. But the FFQ makes a notable exception for fully-veiled women who, it says, should be banned because their niqabs and burqas hinder communication.” The feminist sisterhood may be powerful, as the old saying goes, but it doesn’t embrace fully veiled Muslim women. Indeed, a streak of anti-immigrant demagogy has long been present in the Quebec feminist movement. Witness Lise Payette, the former PQ cabinet minister for the status of women. In her later career as a screenwriter, Payette was notorious for the 1989 documentary Disparaître (Disappearing), which railed against the “threat” to Quebec society posed by immigrants.
It could not be clearer that feminism cannot show the way to women’s emancipation. For feminism, which is a bourgeois ideology, the basic division in society is not class against class, but men against women. Feminism is not premised on the destruction of the capitalist system that is the main source of women’s oppression today. Indeed, the goal of many feminists is nothing more than to advance a layer of women into the boardrooms and the upper reaches of academia and the media. Despite important gains like abortion rights and formal legal equality, the secular bourgeois Quebec that emerged from the Quiet Revolution remains a ruthlessly exploitative society that offers no road to the liberation of women (or anyone else).
Moreover, the PQ’s pretenses to secularism and women’s rights are paper thin. Explicitly not banned under the Charter are “emblematic and toponymic elements of Quebec’s cultural heritage,” i.e., the huge crosses and other Catholic symbols that adorn public buildings all over Quebec. Tax breaks to religious groups and state funding for private religious schools go untouched, but the law would explicitly “allow physicians and pharmacists to refrain from recommending or providing professional services because of their personal convictions.” The PQ inveighs against the “threat” of a woman wearing a headscarf serving lunch to kids in a daycare centre, but a Christian bigot behind the counter in a pharmacy or medical clinic would be free—on religious grounds—to refuse to prescribe the pill or sell you a condom.
As we wrote in “Down With Quebec’s Niqab Ban!” (SC No. 165, Summer 2010): “The danger to women’s rights comes not from a tiny, vulnerable Muslim minority, but from the rule of the bourgeoisie, which upholds the reactionary institution of the family, the central force that oppresses women the world over. The family is the vehicle for transmitting property from one generation to the next, and the mechanism for raising new generations of workers.” The oppression of women originates in class society, and can only be ended by overthrowing capitalist class rule. The family unit cannot simply be abolished: its functions must be replaced with socialized childcare and housework in an egalitarian socialist society.
Since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union—the world’s first workers state, created through the October 1917 workers revolution in Russia—there has been a sharp rise of all kinds of religious fundamentalism. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism: all are variants of “the opium of the people,” as Karl Marx characterized religion 170 years ago. The growth of this false consciousness among the poor and downtrodden is rooted in despair and the lie that the struggle for an egalitarian socialist future is no longer possible.
Every modern religion is an instrument of reaction that befuddles the working people. But the increased prevalence of the veil today is also a result of the relentless poverty and discrimination suffered by Muslim immigrants and their descendants in Canada and other imperialist countries. Young immigrant and minority women are trapped between the racism of these societies and rigid, oppressive family structures.
All the parties of the capitalist class, federalist and sovereignist alike, necessarily promote racism against such minorities, because “divide and rule” policies are necessary to a social system based on the grinding exploitation of the working class. We Marxists fight for the voluntary integration of all minorities based on full equality. But we understand that eradicating racism, women’s oppression and all forms of discrimination requires a revolutionary struggle, mobilizing the social power of the working class to put an end to capitalist exploitation and liberate humanity from poverty and want.
Québec Solidaire: Fifth Wheel of the Bourgeois PQ
This perspective is light years from that of Québec Solidaire (QS), the petty-bourgeois nationalist party that is backed by most of Quebec’s reformist left. In the build-up to last year’s provincial election, QS leader Françoise David offered to prop up a minority PQ government in the National Assembly. More recently, QS spokesmen have provided cover for the PQ’s turn to open anti-immigrant bigotry, affirming that they “welcome favourably” various proposals in the Charter and seek “honourable compromises.”
In October, QS launched its own “Charter of Secularism.” While dumping many of the overtly racist restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols, it would keep intact the ban on public services for women wearing the niqab. This is consistent with QS’s stance when the then-Liberal government sought to implement a similar ban in Quebec in 2010. QS deputy Amir Khadir also voted to support a PQ motion banning Sikhs wearing the kirpan (a small ceremonial religious dagger) from entering the National Assembly to speak against the proposed Liberal bill.
Several of the reformist outfits who have made themselves a home inside Québec Solidaire (La Riposte/Fightback, Gauche Socialiste, etc.) have issued statements opposing the PQ Charter. La Riposte claims, nonetheless, that the Charter is no big deal: it “will ultimately be toothless” and “have little real effect in Quebec” (marxiste.qc.ca, 24 September). For Gauche Socialiste, which has long prayed at the altar of petty-bourgeois Quebec nationalism, the main problem is the PQ’s “incapacity to win a majority of the Québécois people to the perspective of independence” (pressegauche.org, 27 August). The English Canadian cothinkers of these groups support the NDP, long a flagrant opponent of Quebec’s national rights. For these reformists, the only consistency is political opportunism: tailing after whatever appears to be popular. This has nothing in common with the Marxist fight for revolutionary leadership.
The persecution of Muslim women, who are among the most oppressed in today’s capitalist society, is poison to working-class struggle. Muslims and other minorities make up a growing part of the working class in Montreal as well as other cities in Canada. Victory over the ruling exploiters requires the unity of the working class against racist demagogy in all its forms. That means opposing the PQ’s reactionary Bill 60 (and its little brother, QS’s Charter of Secularism) as well as all of the capitalists’ anti-immigrant laws, and fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.
The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste is fighting to build the nucleus of a binational revolutionary workers party. Acting as a tribune of all the oppressed, such a party would seek to draw behind it women, youth and oppressed minorities in the fight for emancipation from the capitalist system. It can only be forged through an intransigent political struggle to break the working class from its current chauvinist and nationalist misleaders, in English Canada and Quebec alike. Only through proletarian socialist revolution on an international scale can we begin to build a society free of hunger, war and racism; a world where men and women will no longer need to take refuge in religious fantasies to escape the harsh realities of a capitalist society rooted in misery and oppression.