Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society, by Raquel Fletcher, Linda Leith Publishing, 2020 (148 pages)

 

[Though a book reviewer is supposed to keep herself out of a review, I took the decision to leave myself in. The author, Raquel Fletcher, also puts something of herself in this book.]

 

Québec is distinct; Québec is different. This is something every new Canadian inevitably learns soon after immigrating to Canada. This was my experience too.

Being an immigrant first to Canada and then to Québec, I have heard many views and opinions on this province. When I lived in ROC (Rest of Canada), I came across two predominant perceptions of the province: it was either glamourized as the “other,” as arty, gourmet and “European,” or criticized for being a renegade. The existence of the abbreviation ROC is in itself telling.

Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society by Raquel Fletcher, Québec National Assembly reporter for Global TV News, is at once a personal account of a prairie girl, a self-confessed, proud francophile “encountering” Québec (both the capital city and the province), and political reporting on the increasingly fraught identity politics here.

In the introduction Fletcher writes:

“Quebec is a society full of inconsistencies. While it’s arguably the most feminist and progressive province in Canada, it’s also the only jurisdiction in North America to limit civil liberties by banning religious symbols. It’s increasingly modern, global, diverse and multicultural, particularly in Montreal – and yet, some nationalists defend what could be characterized as anti-immigration policies in the name of protecting the French language.”

Fletcher goes on to say that getting accurate reporting on Québec issues from the ROC is more difficult. It’s hard to get the nuances. And this is one of her reasons for writing Who Belongs in Quebec?

The book is an account of very recent Québec politics in relation to identity issues with many footnotes, mostly cross-referencing media articles in English and sometimes in French. It is old-fashioned journalism in a positive sense and shows restraint.

Here are the issues and discourse- shaping events that Fletcher methodically covers: “pastagate” when the name Resto La Mama Grilled Cheese in Québec City was seen as contravening Bill 101 Charter of the French Language; the passing of Bill 62 (curtailing the rights of niqab wearers) by the Liberal government in power; the mosque shooting in Québec City (both events took place in 2017); the growth of extrem-right media (particularly radio) and alt-right groups (La Meute); the negative impact of Trump becoming the US President, including the rise in racism; the first-ever English-language debate in a Québec election and the rise and majority win of the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) in 2018. By the end of that year, an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers had crossed into Québec from the US and Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Jean-François Lisée, in a tweet, suggested the building of a barrier. In 2019, the CAQ passed Bill 21 which bans religious symbols being worn by “authority figures” to promote Québec’s version of a secular state. The bill was opposed, largely by leaders and citizens in Montréal. And that same year there was Bill 9, an immigration bill that would set the groundwork for a French language exam and a values test for new immigrants. This bill was passed by fiat in the middle of the night. CAQ cut the number of immigrants to Québec by 20 per cent, ostensibly to ensure better retention and integration, while at the same time unceremoniously dumping 18,000 pending immigration files.

Whew! Even though I have been following the news, the book made me more aware of the rapidity and extent of the change.

I moved to Montréal 12 years ago. I learnt French after moving here and can converse in that language. I had tried to learn it before, but not being immersed, I was not that successful. I also give Indian cooking classes in French, as needed.

With a white Québécois partner, I have easy access to Francophones who are friends and family. I live in multiple worlds. In Montréal, one circle is made up mainly of Anglophones and allophones who mostly also speak French, and who are somewhat racially diverse, though most are white. Another circle is almost exclusively made up of white Francophones, many of whom can speak English. These circles remain separate. Even so, this is diversity, isn’t it? And it should feel normal and good, right? With passing years, moving between these groups has become increasingly disorienting, and belonging in Québec, more tenuous.

Fletcher notes one of the distinct features of Québec that impacts politics: “Suspicion of religion in politics is often a progressive impulse in Québec politics… this tendency in Québec is often seen as being progressive rather than Islamophobic.” An Angus Reid survey found that far fewer Québecers were likely to vote for a candidate who wore a face covering as compared to people in ROC. For any party voted into power here, the need to preserve Québec’s unique Francophone culture and identity is paramount.

In Chapter 3, Fletcher sketches out the political spectrum spanning from left to extreme right in the 2018 election, represented by the four candidates running for party leadership. The sole woman, Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire, a left-wing and pro-independence party, was the only one willing to look into systemic discrimination in the province.

In late June 2020, as I write this review, the words systemic discrimination/systemic racism have acquired a whole new meaning and urgency after the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact in Canada. And yet, despite documented evidence, Québec Premier François Legault still denies the existence of systemic racism here.

This compact book views identity politics through the lens of party politics, government, legislation and mainstream media coverage. Minority voices are presented only in two chapters. Fletcher conveys the views of the people at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre after the mass shooting there that killed six men and seriously injured five. And in a chapter entitled “Islam, Women and the Secularism Debate,” we hear from Muslim women who are both for and against face coverings.

Sondos Lamrhari, the first police student to wear a hijab, is quoted as saying:

“I think the day we accept the fact that there’s not only one single way that liberty can be conceived, I think is the day we’ll accept, that yes, there are women who feel free wearing the veil, and others who feel free wearing the least amount of clothing possible. As long as women feel free in the way they present their bodies, that’s what we need to take into consideration and to highlight.”

Having illustrated the difficulties in finding a common ground, Fletcher ends the book on a personal, reflective note. There are no grand conclusions. Real life is often bereft of them. As an example of progressive change she describes how the Monastery of the Augustine Sisters in Québec City which, while displaying and “owning” its past, has modernized into a world-renowned health retreat.

She also says: “Perhaps the problem is that the current political debate focuses on what to exclude, rather than what to include in the common project… And perhaps that debate distracts from the ongoing work, some political and some not, that is taking place to build a better, more secular Québec.”

The work that is unfolding in community groups, certain institutions, people-to-people, etc., is not the focus of this book.

Written in straightforward language, with personal anecdotes that humanize the narrative, Who Belongs in Quebec is also the voice of a young Canadian woman on a key topic. This slim book is a useful introduction to very recent identity politics in Québec. Its impartial tone will make it palatable to many. Apart from serving the general reader, it can be a handy primer for newcomers to Québec.