Quebec is an open, tolerant society, but…

02.28.08

That’s what most Quebecers will tell you, anyway. But the recent “reasonable accommodation” hearings have shed some light on the dirty little secret of xenophobia that keeps creeping up here.

And now, we have some new poll results on antisemitism with discouraging, though not altogether surprising, results:

According to the poll results, 41 per cent of Quebecers agreed, and another 41 per cent disagreed, with the idea that “Jews want to impose their customs and traditions on others.” By comparison, only 11 per cent agreed and 74 per cent disagreed in the rest of Canada. The average nationwide was 19 per cent agreeing and 64 per cent disagreeing.

To another statement – “Jews want to participate fully in society” – 41 per cent of Quebecers disagreed and 31 per cent agreed, compared with a mere eight per cent disagreeing and 72 per cent agreeing among other Canadians. The national average was 16 per cent disagreeing and 63 per cent agreeing.

On the idea that “Jews have made an important contribution to society,” 35 per cent of Quebecers disagreed and 41 per cent agreed, compared with only 10 per cent disagreeing and 74 per cent agreeing in the rest of Canada. The Canadian average was 16 per cent disagreeing and 65 per cent agreeing.

As a cegep student, I naively wrote a research paper on the history of antisemitism in Quebec. A product of the Jewish school system bubble, I was genuinely surprised when my Quebecois professor was less-than-thrilled with my choice of subject and my treatment of it, and graded the paper accordingly. Not that I’m claiming bias; I freely admit that the paper was graded poorly because, well, it wasn’t much good. But I was still rather taken aback at the prof’s personal reaction, and his subsequent coldness to me.

What I didn’t really “get”, as a naive 18-year-old, was that people don’t much like being accused of racism, and that accusing an entire group of people of racism is a form of racism in and of itself.

All this to say that polls like this one are double-edged swords. If people use these results merely to finger-point, then not much gets solved. “Quebec nationalism is xenophobic” is a statement with some elements of truth, a lot of elements of falsehood, and ultimately one that gets us nowhere.

But it won’t do to hide the truth under a cachet of hearts and flowers, either. If there is genuinely a distance between Quebec and the ROC in attitudes towards Jews, or minorities in general – and admittedly, there is – then it’s time to identify what we can do to help make things better.

To understand Quebec antisemitism, we need to understand the different political, cultural and historical factors that have led to Quebec nationalism, because there are a lot of tie-ins. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism is higher in Quebec than elsewhere. Defensiveness about language and culture, the perception that Quebec is a French island fighting a rising tide from a sea of English surrounding it, and a generally more left-wing, socialist, collectivist political bent (despite our strong support for private sector healthcare involvement) are a few of Quebec’s quirks.

I know this sounds like it has nothing to do with Quebec antisemitism, but it does. Despite the large francophone Sephardic Jewish community in Quebec, antisemitism here is largely tied in with the perception of many that the Jews are part of “the English”, the oppressor, the Other. The historical archetype of the rich English business owner exploiting the poor French worker is ingrained in the mindset of the province, even if it no longer reflects modern realities. It’s part of the psyche of many in Quebec.

On a one-on-one level, particularly in multiculturual Montreal, people in Quebec are mostly open, genuine and accepting. They just express it differently. Outside of Montreal, many people do not encounter many minorities in their daily lives. When they do, they generally approach them with an open – if sometimes uninformed – attitude. People who move from les régions to Montreal often find themselves, for the first time, making friends with different religions, skin colours and backgrounds, and I’ve found that they are more than willing to ask questions, approach people as individuals, and work together. Like with the language issue, when the politicians stay out of the game, the people, for the most part, do a pretty good job of getting along.

But there are the ugly incidents. From Lionel Groulx’s rampant antisemitism to Jacques Parizeau blaming the 1995 referendum defeat on “money and the ethnic vote”, the stories are many and not so far between. Not to mention the powerful alliance between Quebec’s labour unions and the antisemitism on the left, particularly from the anti-Israel crowd. The recent reasonable accommodation hearings were only the icing on that particularly unsavoury cake.

So which model is true? Quebec as the closed, defensive, xenophobic and racist society? Or Quebec as the open, tolerant, welcoming and progressive society? Well, both, actually. It seems like a logical impossibility, but in this “distinct society”, it makes perfect sense.

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