Conservative MP Maxime Bernier’s weekend comments calling Bill 101 unnecessary are a clarion call of courage and candour. We should be rallying around those sentiments. Bernier spoke truth to myth and emerged as a new patron saint of reason. He should be lionized not vilified as he has been in much of the Quebec press. He has opened the door to a much needed debate on a heretofore taboo subject. It is a wake up call for this province and perhaps a last chance to turn Quebec toward the politics of respect, justice and equality.
Bernier’s comments came in the course of an interview in Halifax where the question of the state’s role in building identity was discussed. Bernier felt that the state, as an instrument of policy, is too overbearing and gave Bill 101 as an example. He said that it is people who build identity through their individual achievements and aspirations, and added that Francophones are quite capable of ensuring the survival and success of their culture while respecting the rights of others. That in a free society, freedom of choice is paramount. We can all get along.
These are lasting and universal truths. So why the outcry against him? Why the fear about his comments? Because he has thrown down the gauntlet of challenge to the great lies of the Quebec culture wars of the past forty years. And if successful, the challenge could cost the politicians and pontificators who have made a living from appealing to the lowest common denominator their jobs.
Bernier has been attacked for “disturbing” the “status quo” on language. Well the truth is there was never a status quo. Regressive and discriminatory laws were rammed down Quebecers throats and they drove some half million Francophones and over a million Anglophones and allophones out of this province. It was a political cleansing. There was no status quo. From the resentment of non-Francophones to the revulsion of young Francophone professionals, people today realize that these laws were nothing but the politics of demonization meant to secure votes. And they have had enough.
One recent poll suggested over 60% of Francophones want the freedom to choose schools in the language they want for their children. They understand that Anglophones and allophones have more choice than they do. They want their children, and this province, to benefit fully from the miraculous economic engine that is North America. They realize that they can’t have that in a ghetto. A ghetto only benefits ward politicians.
Bernier’s comments also reflect the frustration of many Francophones with the false nationalist narrative that led to the restrictive language laws and the consequent constriction of our economy. They understand that there was no original sin, no great injustice done to a native people in their native land. They realize that both French and English came here as imperialists, and that there is no moral superiority in the nationalist desire for revenge. They are tired of the paternalism of successive Quebec governments telling Francophones that only the state can protect them.
Our great hope lies with young Francophones. Last year Montreal surpassed Boston with the most post secondary students per capita in North America. Quite a success story. But will the government publicize that? Of course not. It does not serve any party’s paternalistic interests. But the people know. And especially our young people. They know they can compete and succeed.
In Henrik Ibsen’s classic “An enemy of the people”, the hero tries to warn his fellow villagers not to drink the water because it is poisoned. But the town fathers have such a vested interest in the “status quo”, and particularly in the waterworks, that they paint the hero as the villain. Well, Bernier is a hero. He is telling us to stop drinking the kool-aid. Stop the politics of prejudice. He did not shirk in front of the lynch mob of critics. He answered them with clarity. “Ideally, everyone in Quebec should be capable of expressing themselves in French. But we cannot seek to obtain this objective by restricting the rights and liberty of individual choice.” Amen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “One man – resolute – abiding by the truth, shall rally a majority.” We believe this can be so, and if we will it this is not a dream.