20 August 2012

Secularism in Québec

Oh, high election season, when we all come together to throw the minorities under the bus! You might be able to detect a certain frustration I have with how Québec relates to its minorities, especially its religious minorities.

Now, I am no fan of religion. I am, however, a fan of respecting people's rights and their freedom of expression up to — and not including — the point where those rights and that expression encroach on those of others. If people want to believe fairy tales and wear cute little items of clothing or jewellery to show those nutty beliefs, they can go ahead and do it. They just can't use their fairy tales to stop anyone else from accessing a service or exercising a right.

How do we guarantee the secularism of the state? By ensuring that its institutions are not identified with any religion, including the formerly dominant one that Québec society all but abandoned more than forty years ago. Crucifix in the National Assembly or in a courtroom? Out! Prayer before the debates in the National Assembly or a City Council meeting? Out! These are almost invariably the expressions of the formerly dominant religion. They are not a part of the secular society in which we live.

I draw another line, though, at the level of the individual. I don't see the harm in someone's wearing their little cross around their neck, their kippa or their hijab on their head. Not even in the context of government services. I will confess that the niqab (face covering) still jars me a bit, but if a public being served must see the face of the person acting as an instrument of the state, there are surely adaptations that can be made to accommodate someone who (for the sake of their fairy tale) must cover the face. This might be a position that is not dealing with people face to face, and there are plenty such positions in the public service.

If, on the other hand, we must always see the faces of all people acting as instruments of the state, there are some modifications to be made to the visors and gas masks worn by 'our' riot police to protect themselves from their own weapons.

Where the line is clear for me, however, is in the actual delivery of services to citizens. Nobody gets to cite his or her religion to refuse to do a duty outlined in the job description. We keep hearing stories from the US of people resigning from their positions rather than registering same sex marriages and to that I would say "Yes, that's exactly what should happen." If you are unwilling to do your job because of the fairy tale you believe in, find another job.

I was in a courtroom once a few years ago to hear a sentence being delivered. When we arrived, we all noticed that the court clerk was wearing a hijab. My first thought was "Wow! Cultural diversity reaches the judicial system in Québec." Some of my companions, on the other hand, were outraged, which I will never understand. This woman did her job and her religion didn't seem to impact any aspect of that other than what she wore to work.

The variety of fairy tales that people believe in, and the quaint customs they observe in the name of those fairy tales, are a part of a society open to the world. We are all in agreement that public services (including commercial services offered to the general public) in Québec must all be available in French. As much as we can, we ought to strive to reach people in other languages, too, without excluding people from the workplace when we don't offer support for them to acquire those additional language skills. Beyond the commonality of French, our government should look like our society, in all its diversity.

The institutions and the services provided must be neutral, but the individuals who provide them ought to be as diverse as the population they serve.

16 August 2012

Signs of the Times

I love doing this: analyzing from my own skewed perspective the election signs that are inflicted on us for the duration of the election campaign. What I like best is to look at the creative ways that people will alter them. Oh, I'm not talking about the moustaches drawn on them; I usually look for something a little more clever.

First up: the ruling Liberal Party. I feel quite certain that the graphic artist who came up with this design has lost his or her job. As it turns out, the rather empty slogan "Pour le Québec" (For Québec) is easily changed to "Pourrir le Québec" (To Spoil [ruin] Québec). I took this photo across the street from my office and the sign was quickly taken away by the party. Just doing my part to ensure that it lives on on the internet!

Next party: the Parti québécois. I haven't found these defaced in any way so far, but it is notable that the slogan "À nous de choisir" (For us to choose) has revived the nagging question about who is part of the "nous" for the Parti québécois. It isn't always clear that the PQ's "nous" includes anyone other than white Québec-born francophones, although they do have a handful of visible minority candidates (I'm undertaking the laborious process of examining the different parties' candidates and counting the proportions of women and visible minority or anglophone candidates, but this is going to take a while). One comment widely reported in the media went something like "Finally we can say 'nous' again"…from a white francophone voter.

The slogan does morph well to the next level, as the specific candidate signs say "Choose [candidate's name]". Not particularly inventive, but not offensive either.

Our "new" right-wing party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) does that thing that I always detest: bets mainly on the recognition factor of the leader. When you name your party after yourself or its slogan is based around your name, it just looks very high school to me. Shouldn't a democracy be about the team? Apart from the "Look at me, it's My team!" message, the CAQ also has a rather complex slogan: "C'est assez, faut que ça change!" (That's enough, it has to change!), which doesn't really roll off the tongue well and has been criticized for being a bit vague. Imagine, politicians being vague! You will also notice that the above poster is also nailed into a tree, which is an excellent indication of their environmental policy, no?

People have had some fun online with the posters, though. After a string of very white star candidates had been announced, I saw the poster for Benoit Lugas (which becomes B. Lugas or beluga), which gave me a chuckle, and then there was speculation about what the candidate poster might look like in the riding where François Legault is running for his own seat:

And, while not particularly clever, I managed to capture this cry from the heart a couple of blocks away from home:
The last party to look at today is Québec solidaire, our new-ish left wing party. I actually saw an online poll (unscientific, I realize) about which party had the best slogan and Québec solidaire was running away with it at about 40%. The slogan? "Debout" (Standing up..although it can also be interpreted as a call to action, as in Stand up!). You will notice side-by-side leader posters here, as the party has co-leaders. It's interesting that this time around they are each on their own posters, as last time they were on the same one, like a two-headed leader. The slogan is fabulous for its simplicity, but also for the way it translates into other versions.

The candidate is "standing up" for the riding, but there is also another series of the party "standing up" for various policy issues (pictured below, Free education).

Another note on this one, particular to the candidate in my riding, Manon Massé. Close up and in person you can see that she has a moustache and has not photoshopped it away or plucked or waxed it. A local cultural magazine did what no one else dared to and asked her about it directly. Her response is a fabulous defence of gender non-conformity and the right to be real. No photoshopping or catering her look to meet your expectations; like the party, what you see is what you get.

(I'm not going to look at posters for the Parti Vert or Option nationale simply because I haven't seen any around.)

09 August 2012

A Resignation

Today, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the spokespeople for the student group La CLASSE, resigned from his position. I thought I would mark this occasion by expressing some of my admiration for his integrity.

He is a bright and articulate young man who has stood up to power and not flinched. In the face of derision and vilification by those to whom we have entrusted political power, he has not descended to those levels, but insisted on the arguments he and others in the student movement had developed. This has betrayed a level of maturity we can only hope that our politicians will return to...or develop.

He has steadfastly respected and insisted on the limits of the role accorded to him by his movement. When politicians and members of the media have attempted to characterize him as the "leader" of his group, he has reminded them that he is a spokesperson, that he does not make decisions for the group, that the group has structures for decision-making that he respects. An individual with a less clear sense of the democratic values of his organization might have tried to arrogate those powers and that status to himself or herself. Not he and not his co-spokespeople. Not even when pushed by those who seemed to fail to understand the structure. A respect for the democratic principles of his group's collectivity that seems to have slipped from the view of our politicians in their practices.

We have been witness this year to the most important mobilization of our youth in generations, this in a context where we have decried the apathy of the young for a long time. I have been proud to see them in their idealism, with all their energy and creativity, as they set out to change a government decision with which they (and I) continue to disagree. They have been mobilized for months in the face of rejection and derision from our political authorities and they have not backed down.

So now one face of this movement steps away from his role as one of the spokespeople of his group, not to disappear, but to continue as a part of the movement and maybe to focus on his own goals. I have every confidence that he will do everything he needs to do to pursue his goals. I just want now to express my gratitude for the example that he and his colleagues have set for the rest of us.

08 August 2012

Making Facebook Meaner

When I first opened my Facebook account, about 689 format changes ago, there was something very polite about some of the interactions. If someone declined your friend request, you didn't necessarily find out unless you checked up on it, and if you turned down an invitation to an event, your name would show up on the "no" list, but that is all.

Imagine my surprise recently when, after sending an invitation to a couple hundred of my closest personal friends, I started getting notifications that this friend or that had refused my invitation! It sounds so cold and nasty! It made me realize that I could no longer just click the "no" button without consequence. I now actually find myself not responding to these requests in order to not offend the person or organization that has invited me. At worst, if my inviter or other invitees get chatty on the event page, I have to say "maybe" just so I can turn off the notifications. I even had to say "maybe" to an event that was already over recently because someone started posting a lot of comments on the event page and it was giving me too many notifications!

Now I'm worried that if I defriend someone or refuse a friend request from someone I only marginally know or don't personally know that the person will get a notification that mean old me has taken this action. I wonder how many friend requests I can accumulate without responding to them. I may be about to find out!

And while we're ranting about the site that occupies so much of my time (talk about voting with your feet — must not be so terrible after all!), I am getting quite tired of having my preferences reset when new changes come about, or having the site decide that I might no longer wish to see all of my friends' posts and switching me back to a select few it has decided I am more likely to want to see. Once I've made my choice, please leave it to me to change my mind: I don't need to be challenged to reaffirm my choices from time to time by undoing something the site does surreptitiously.

Still the best place to share photos and brief news, however, so I'm still sold, or at least rented, on it.

04 August 2012

An Exercise in Democracy?

So here we go, off to the polls in a provincial election called for September 4. This time around, a few new factors: a background of the student strike that has been a huge and sustained mobilization of people who tend to vote less than other age groups; a "new" party that is looking increasingly like the old party it swallowed in the last few months (oh yeah, except for those members who were just scooped up by the Liberals); a long-awaited inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, with many connections to politics…oh wait, this last thing shouldn't be a factor because our open and honest premier has happened to call the election for a date almost two weeks before the inquiry resumes its hearings in September.

You think I might be cynical about this process? We have a ruling party that has insisted, through months of student demonstrations, that the only place that democracy takes place is at the ballot box. This party then decides to have a short election campaign* during the dog days of summer when fewer people will be interested in politics and voting. Interestingly, the election call also fell on the date of the 100th consecutive night demonstration, prompting a larger than usual turnout, estimated at around 10,000.

There is something interesting about the ideas the parties seem to have about the democratic process. There is some recruiting of "star" candidates, presumably by-passing the usual process of the party members in a particular riding choosing their candidate. This likely explains how mystified the government was during its farcical negotiations with the students in the spring: they just don't understand that the people who have been designated as spokespeople for a movement don't necessarily assume all the power of decision-making. Some democratic structures actually have more participatory procedures for making decisions.

Democracy isn't something distasteful that you sneak by when people are on vacation once every four or five years, it is something that you live every day. I just hope that those who have been demonstrating their point of view on the tarification of government services as exemplified by the proposed tuition increases will also participate in the "once every four or five years" version of democracy by voting and voting against the neoliberal agenda.

*The length of a campaign is spelled out by article 131 of the Loi Électorale: the 5th Monday following a decree issued on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the 6th Monday following a decree issued on another day; if voting day falls on a statutory holiday, the vote is the following day.