Muslims and immigrants have become scapegoats in Quebec’s election cycles
By Monia Mazigh
Every election season in Quebec, you can safely predict that immigration and/or Muslims will make headlines and be the topics most spoken about. But to be fair to Quebec, we have watched and followed many recent elections that became synonymous with immigration or fearmongering, Islamophobia or the banalization of hate.
The same pattern that happened in France (ABC News, April 25) is happening in Italy (Euronews, Aug. 5) and Sweden, where the far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats made gains in the general election (Washington Post, Sept. 14).
It happened in Canada in 2015 when former conservative prime minister Stephen Harper spent his final months in office pushing culturally divisive policies, among them a bill banning the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies and promising to implement a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline (The Canadian Press, Nov. 14, 2021).
Quebec’s current provincial elections, held on October 3, are no exception.
Despite gaining a majority in the 2019 election, the center right Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), comprised of former sovereigntists who dropped the issue from their platform in favor of grabbing and staying in power, is once again surfing on the back of immigrants. During the last election, the party did the same thing and won a majority. This time it’s repeating the same strategy, and it looks like the party will remain in power.
When I first arrived in Quebec in 1991, speaking against immigration was unfathomable. Immigration, specially from Francophone countries, was wanted and badly needed. The only topics during those elections was Quebec’s sovereignty and the French language. Unfortunately for the radical believers in Quebec sovereignty, such debates were a sort of cul-de-sac that led nowhere. Sovereignty was an ideologically valid argument but an economically dangerous path for many Quebecers, who feared losing their buying power and quality of life compared to the rest of Canada. The 1995 referendum on independence was rejected by a small margin.
During the announcement of that bitter defeat, the late Jacques Parizeau, leader of the Parti Quebecois, publicly made his infamous statement that “we lost because of the money and the ethnic vote” (CBC News, April 3, 2016).
That was the first time a Quebec politician publicly targeted immigrants in a series of rambling words and accused them of being responsible for the failure of a social project. Then, the arrows were likely directed against Montreal’s Anglophones and/or Jewish communities. Years later, immigration became a favorite and recurring negative topic in Quebec elections.
Elections have changed to the point that when Francois Legault, Quebec’s incumbent prime minister, attacks immigration as a “possible threat to our national cohesion,” he’s talking to the voters who look, speak and think like him (CBC News, Sept. 12). He’s using emotional words to represent immigrants as a threat and make the majority population believe that they are “one” homogeneous group.
When I was still a student in Quebec, the only “threat” I heard about was the French language’s drowning in an ocean of English. Immigrants weren’t clearly identified as a threat. However, measures were taken to impose French as the language of education for all immigrants. That was called “la Loi 101.” My husband, who immigrated to Quebec in the 1980s with his parents as a teenager from Syria with zero knowledge of French, had to learn it before formally starting high school. That was a good policy, one of integration, one that encouraged the children of immigrants to feel that they belong.
However, today many of these same children felt betrayed after Legault said in one of his rallies that “Quebecers are peaceful. They don’t like conflict and extremism, and violence. And we have to make sure to keep things the way they are now.” He later apologized for his statement after being criticized by some politicians and personalities (CTV News Montreal, Sept. 10). Nevertheless, it remains a disturbing and scary statement that was neither true nor appropriate.
Immediately following the last Quebec election, the freshly elected Legault government introduced a new legislation that targeted religious symbols, in particular the hijab worn by Muslimas, many of them immigrants. Then hijab was portrayed by some politicians and public intellectuals as a sign of women’s oppression and somehow a tool of proselytism threatening the “neutrality” of the state. With this legal ban, Muslim women found themselves excluded from being teachers, public servants, or crown prosecutors. This is a clear example that political rhetoric is not merely for public consumption; it has impact — in this case, Muslimas and their socioeconomic situation and mental health well-being.
Not only are immigrants accused of bringing violence and extremism with them, but they are also constantly portrayed as responsible for the decline of French (Global News. Sept. 2, 2021).
But this decline is neither new nor specific to Quebec. In 2014, a report commissioned by former president François Holland determined that French is in decline both in France and worldwide, as well as in many Francophone countries. So, immigration isn’t the sole factor responsible for it. The widespread use of English in pop music, on the internet and for education and conferences in most subjects all indicate that French is being threatened by English, not by immigrants.
When I enrolled for my master’s program in finance at the École des Hautes Commerciales in Montreal, all the papers, studies and readings — in fact, all of the course material — was in English. Only our classes were given in French, and that was in 1992! As a French speaker, I had purposely chosen Montreal so I could study in French, and yet most of my academic readings were in English. I also noticed that the general level of French competency among my fellow students wasn’t very strong.
Many of them used “Anglicism” and had a weak French vocabulary. Even though they were pure laine (Québécois of French-Canadian ancestry), the level of French I had received in Tunisia was higher than theirs. Immigration is a symptom of the decline of French, not a direct consequence of it nor the only reason for it.
One of the main reasons for this decline is the aging population. Moreover, Quebec has one of Canada’s lowest birth rates (https://statistique.quebec.ca/, March 18, 2021) — a fact only rarely mentioned in political debates. Who’s serving the old people in their homes and those in the long-term care homes? Most of the time it’s immigrants. The pandemic revealed their vulnerable status, which put pressure on the Legault government to raise their wages and facilitate the regularization of their papers (Global News, June 27).
These examples aren’t mentioned in today’s public debate. All that is left is the immigrants’ “violence and extremism.”
Meanwhile, worker shortage is a worsening trend. Karl Blackburn, president of le Conseil du patronat, Quebec’s largest employers’ group, said that trend will leave 1.4 million positions vacant between now and 2030. But Legault claims that immigration isn’t the only solution, for robots and automation will be alternatives to explore (CTVNewsMontreal.ca, Sept. 14) — as if no human beings will be needed to make them work or maintain them.
What I find concerning is the absence of organizations challenging and changing the narratives of Quebec’s Muslim communities. Aside from the few native informant voices whom the media parades from time to time to reassure the majority about the immigrant “threats,” rare are the voices and organizations that defend the immigrants and Muslims’ rights.
Those political framing and wedge issues picked up by Legault, those on which you must choose a side and leave only limited — if any room — for nuance, have kept these communities in a spiral of reactivity instead of choosing a path of proactiveness and growth.
From the reasonable accommodations debate of 2008 until today, the province’s Muslim communities have been stuck in a put-out-the-fire mode. As a result, they have not built institutions that can potentially resist such storms and change the distorted narratives. This is happening now, but at a very slow pace. And every once in while a new controversy bursts out and brings down the bricks, which then have to be put together again to resist the politics of fear and hate.
Considering these two communities’ precarious reality of being constant targets of political campaigns, many of their members could decide to leave and start over somewhere else in Canada. This additional aspect isn’t discussed enough: the retention rate of immigrants in Quebec as compared to other provinces like Ontario or British Columbia (https://www.settler.ca/english/).
This vicious cycle of staying or leaving, which makes the building of anti-racist and advocacy institutions fragile and slow, is hard to break. Perhaps the younger generation will be more successful than we have been.
Monia Mazigh, PhD, an academic, author and human rights activist, is an adjunct professor at Carleton University (Ontario). She has published “Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar” (2008) and three novels, “Mirrors and Mirages” (2015), “Hope Has Two Daughters” (2017) and “Farida” (2020), which won the 2021 Ottawa Book Award prize for French-language fiction. She is currently working on a collection of essays about gendered Islamophobia.