French-language “Leaders’ Debate”: Quebec-bashing over Bill 21

Quebec’s Bill 21 is raised often across the country as an “election issue.” It is expected to dominate the French-language “leaders’ debate” on October 10 as well. Renewal Update asked Diane Johnston who is running in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal for her opinion on Bill 21 and the Quebec-bashing which is taking place in this election. Diane is well-known for championing both minority and citizenship rights and modern constitutional arrangements which vest sovereignty in the people and recognize the right of Quebec to self-determination. She is also an executive member of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada (MLPC).

Renewal Update: What is your Party’s take on Bill 21?

Diane Johnston: Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State, was adopted by the Quebec National Assembly in June of this year. It bans public workers “in positions of authority” from wearing religious symbols while on duty. It is presented as an implementation of the principle of secularism which separates state affairs from religious affairs, as promoting equality of men and women and freedom of conscience among citizens. But it mainly targets Muslim public school teachers who wear the hijab as well as minorities who wear religious symbols of one kind or another. As well, a very tiny number of women in Quebec who wear the niqab or burka are also being singled out. The suggestion that their presence causes problems in providing and receiving public services is ridiculous.[1]

Bill 21 is raised by the political parties which form the cartel party system to keep the people disorganized and disempowered. These parties and the pundits and monopoly-controlled media promote the issue as a diversion from the real economic, social and political problems facing Quebec and Canada. The bill and the ensuing noise about it attempt to divert attention away from dealing with those problems by accusing Quebeckers of being racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, narrow nationalists, right-wing and much more while, from the other side, the “Quebec consensus” argument is given. In this way, Bill 21 is a tactic to keep a reactionary civil war scenario simmering on the back burner, to be brought forward whenever other forms of diversion are not working for them. We see this as a form of Quebec-bashing in the current federal election campaign.

At a time there is no danger that any church or organized religion is taking over the temporal affairs of Quebec the cynicism of the ruling class is such that it manipulates the sentiments of the people against the stranglehold of the Catholic Church over temporal affairs in the past to declare a “Quebec consensus” against the use of religious symbols in public institutions.

The separation of church and state is not compromised by how individuals dress. Arguments that the separation of church and state in Quebec is in any way threatened when people wear what they want to wear are rubbish. Who will decide whether to reprimand and discipline a public servant for wearing a cross or a chakra stone or a scarf? Will tattoos be targeted next, people ask.[2]

Renewal Update: Tell us about the experience of the Quebec people with the Catholic Church and how talk about values is used to divide people and block their advance.

Diane Johnston: Quebeckers have bad memories of the days when the Catholic Church interfered in their lives with impunity and they are passionate about this. They suffered greatly at the hands of the church and fought together as a people to break its stranglehold. This experience is still fresh in their minds. The oppression of women was terrible while families were kept in thrall as well.

Even though the majority of the population of Quebec was poor, the working people were forced to pay for all the churches, convents and monasteries with tithes and labour. The families were large in size with many mouths to feed because church policy declared it a sin if women were not pregnant again within a year of giving birth. The church publicly shamed and denounced them. Many children died or suffered extreme poverty under the oppressive policies of the church, deliberately kept over them first by the British colonial authorities and then the Anglo-Canadian state arrangements which deprived the Quebec people of their own sovereignty.

Under the dictate of Duplessis, the church was allowed to dump orphaned children into what used to be called lunatic asylums because the clerical authorities received more money per “insane child” than for orphans. The sexual and other abuse of children is well known, not only of Indigenous children, but also of other children in the parishes and school system run by the ecclesiastical authorities. As a result of their experiences, Quebeckers do not want any mention of anything but a secular state and equality for women and a bright future for their children. Through their own efforts they shook off the stranglehold of the church over their lives until finally, at the end of the 19th century, the Privy Council of the British Imperial Parliament had to rule in the Guibord Affair[3] against the Church dictating temporal affairs.

Then, in the 1950s and early 60s, which is within living memory, the people rebelled against the crimes of the Catholic Church and they forced the Church to stop interfering in their lives by removing its authority over education and other things. This suited the ruling class which wanted to depopulate the countryside – in other words, move labour from the countryside into the cities for industrial development. The individual and collective efforts to move society forward mean that Quebeckers also profoundly respect freedom of conscience as a matter of right. In the opinion of the MLPC to say otherwise and ascribe base sentiments and values to them in the name of a “Quebec consensus” is political opportunism. No effort is made to unite the people on a principled basis.

Far from empowering the people so that they can control the decisions which affect their lives today, the system called a representative democracy is unwilling and incapable of discussing real problems and solutions, and blocks society’s advance. To divide and divert Quebeckers and Canadians, “debates” are organized based on the fiction that Quebeckers are anti-Muslim, anti-women and anti-immigrant and other such incendiary things to create a “them and us” scenario of “an enemy within” which poses a danger to our security, unity and freedom. In this vein, a siege mentality is created because “their values” are not the same as “ours.” An English/French divide is also pushed alongside a rural/urban divide, suggesting one side is narrow-minded, conservative and anti-social and the other is contemporary, realistic, cosmopolitan and pragmatic. To be pragmatic is not presented as a matter of crass opportunism but is associated with being forward-looking. This is par for the course elsewhere in Canada as well.

Nothing is wrong with the values of Quebeckers, just as nothing is wrong with the values of Albertans or anyone in Canada except when it’s the values of the elites, who use their positions of power and privilege to impose them on the people. The MLPC opposes Quebec-bashing just as it opposes bashing Albertans who are called rednecks, anti-Quebec and other nonsense. All this bashing of the people and attempts to turn one section against another is to dismiss what they stand for and want, which is basically the same as what all people everywhere stand for and want — economic security and a bright future. These are legitimate claims on society.

What we see in the case of Bill 21 are the base attempts by the ruling circles to sow division among the people so that their claims on society cannot be discussed. It is done to block the people from organizing and empowering themselves to bring them into being. Within this situation, the cartel parties posture as the saviours of the people who will rescue them from the fictitious bogeymen they and the coterie which keeps them in power have created.

Renewal Update: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is said to be touring the 905 area of Ontario to push these divisive politics. Can you comment.

Diane Johnston: Yes. Not a few at this time claim to uphold the rights of minorities but use identity politics to divide the people, spread hatred and animosities and attempt to justify what cannot be justified such as criminalizing the youth for their beliefs, or immigrants and refugees. The likes of Jason Kenney, who used to be federal immigration minister in the government of Stephen Harper, constantly uses immigrants and identity politics to divert attention from real issues and gain notoriety in the mass media. When Kenney was a federal minister he raised a big hullabaloo about not permitting women to take the oath of citizenship if their faces were covered, and now he has the audacity to say he is against the Quebec law. It is shameless posturing. Andrew Scheer is now confounding irregular border crossings, which refugees are fully entitled to take, with illegal border crossings to incite passions against refugees. One cannot get more base than attacking the most vulnerable people in the world who Canada is duty-bound to protect. It does not bode well for Canadians should a Scheer government be brought to power.

Renewal Update: What about those who say that the issue of Bill 21 can be sorted out by taking it to the Supreme Court?

Diane Johnston: The Supreme Court can rule it ultra vires – unconstitutional – and Quebec can resort to the Notwithstanding Clause.[4] Going this route means that attempts will continue to incite passions and divide the people pro and con each side. So long as the people do not empower themselves to set the agenda for Quebec and Canada this will continue. But the people are not passive. The problem is political – that the people do not govern themselves or exercise control over the decisions which affect their lives, and are taking measures to deal with this. The problems require a political solution by fighting for democratic renewal, not decisions by courts which, at the end of the day, rule according to a Constitution which serves the same narrow private interests that are fighting for control.

The fact remains that no danger exists in Quebec of the church taking control of the government under the present conditions of imperialist globalization. Churches no longer run the public school system or influence the curriculum or who public institutions serve and how they are administered. The danger comes from the takeover of the state, including the system of public education, by narrow private interests. The usurpation of all state functions by private interests goes hand in hand with the pay-the-rich policies of governments at every level. None of this is unconstitutional in Canada today.

In addition, any arguments that say Bill 21 is about women’s equality are nonsense. A small percentage of women in Quebec wear the hijab and a very tiny number of women wear a burka or niqab and of that small number an even smaller number work in the public service at this time. This law targets sectors where mostly women work and targets family values, which are not matters governments should be interfering in. They target teachers in particular. In every case, targeting women and limiting their opportunities will not make them more equal. Similarly, many who form part of the elites and champion equality for women fail to hold governments and state institutions accountable when crimes are committed against women and children. None of this is unconstitutional.

Renewal Update: Is this what the MLPC means when it says an aim is needed for society that upholds the rights of all?

Diane Johnston: Yes. The entire affair, both Bill 21 and the big kerfuffle, is an affront to the people. All of it shows the lengths to which governments in the service of the rich will go to divert attention from the fact that the threat to Quebeckers comes from the financial oligarchs who control decision-making, including what laws governments pass. Governments do not receive a mandate from the people based on false claims that their votes can be aggregated to represent a consensus. The narrative that people are obsessed with a narrow prejudicial outlook is a fiction. Governments at this time receive their marching orders from the financial oligarchy, not the people.

Renewal Update: Justin Trudeau is going all out to present himself as the champion of rights in Quebec. Can you comment?

Diane Johnston: It is to no avail. He stands accused of being a racist and is also a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of recognizing the right of Quebec to self-determination. Akin to the right of divorce, the right of Quebec to self-determination must be enshrined in law. Recognizing this right has no bearing on whether the parties involved will chose to exercise it by separating. In this election the desperation of some to appear as champions of Quebec’s interests so as to hold on to or win seats in Quebec is palpable. They are raising the spectre of narrow nationalism to justify what cannot be justified. Shows of passion and attempts to pull out all the stops to win debates will not restore confidence in the democratic institutions or the federal powers over Quebec which deprive the people of their sovereign decision-making power. Quebeckers do not see certain elites as one of their own because they are not one with the people, not only in Quebec but anywhere in Canada. They are not seen to uphold the values people espouse but those of the financial oligarchy.

Who is perceived to be one with the people and who is not plays a big role in how Quebeckers cast their ballot. They voted en masse for the NDP in 2011, not because the NDP was a known quantity or favoured by them, but to make sure the government of Stephen Harper would not be re-elected. If Ontario had not been caught up in sectarian party politics, his government would have been defeated that year. So too in 2012 the Quebec youth defeated Liberal leader Jean Charest in his own riding in the provincial election to make a statement against his government’s policies to pay the rich, which gave rise to the mass red square movement in defence of public education. Both the Marois PQ as well as the Couillard Liberals were defeated in Quebec in part because they tried to introduce legislation similar to the Legault government’s religious symbols law. It is to make sure the people of Canada do not unite as one in this election to demand a direction to the economy which favours them that Kenney is touring the 905 region of Ontario. Pitting carbon taxes against pipelines, oil workers against environmentalists, Quebec-bashing, immigrant and refugee-bashing all make a lot of noise to oppose the Quebec and Canadian people acting as one force in defence of the rights of all.

Renewal Update: The MLPC proposes that people unite in action in defence of the rights of all. Is this the antidote to the Quebec-bashing?

Diane Johnston: Most certainly. Everything is done to impede this unity. When sectarian forces target Quebec, they are given free rein by a system which brings political parties and not the people to power as in this election. It shows the crisis they are in is deepening and the people should beware. In this election many Quebeckers, already opposing a self-serving Legault government which claims to represent a Quebec consensus, will vote to block both the self-serving Liberals and their pay-the-rich corrupt politics and the dangers of the same kind coming from the Conservatives.

The MLPC calls on Canadians and Quebeckers to oppose Quebec-bashing and the bashing of Albertans or any section of the people by finding practical ways to unite in action in defence of the rights of all.


1. The law was passed by the government of François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) after it formed a majority government in October 2018 and claimed a mandate to speak in the name of all Quebeckers and the values they espouse. Similar bills were previously tabled by the Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marois and then by the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard. Marois’ bill faced an uproar against it and failed to be adopted prior to the election being called in hopes of securing a majority. A section of Couillard’s bill was overturned by the Superior Court of Quebec. Some of the forces staking a claim to Quebec’s land, labour and resources say this bill represents Quebec values and that there is consensus on it, while others say it violates Charter rights and is unconstitutional. There is also a clash between those who espouse a French nation-building model which seeks to integrate everyone into one nationality and the British model followed by Canada which is based on what is called multiculturalism and is said to seek unity in diversity. Both models are in deep crisis because they are racist and based on doling out privileges and tolerating only those who espouse the values and views of the ruling class. They tend to exclude those who stand for their own conscience and the right to determine their own way of life.

2. For the record, a turban such as those worn by some people of Punjabi origin is not a religious symbol. It is not one of the five Ks of the Sikh Khalsa:

– Kesh: uncut hair.
– Kangha: a wooden comb.
– Kara: an iron or steel bracelet worn on the wrist.
– Kirpan: a sword or dagger.
– Kacchera: short breeches.

3. Montreal printer Joseph Guibord was excommunicated by the Catholic Church and denied burial when he died in 1869 because he was a member of the Institut Canadien de Montréal which promoted works blacklisted by the Church. This included the writings of the champions of Enlightenment such as Diderot and Voltaire, the works of Victor Hugo, scientific treatises and the like. Under Montreal Bishop Ignace Bourget who was acting in concert with the Papacy in Rome under Pope Pius IX, the denial of burial was part of a bid by the ecclesiastic authorities to become the authority in all matters of a temporal nature. After the Church incited several riots to stop Guibord’s burial, on November 21, 1874, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England ruled Guibord would be buried in Côte-des-Neiges Cemetery whether or not the Church agreed. The Church responded by deconsecrating the plot where Guibord was buried next to his wife. The ruling by the Privy Council put an end to the pretense of the Church as the supreme authority over temporal affairs in Quebec. The entire affair was used to juxtapose liberalism and the reactionary practice of ultra montaignism by the Church and present Quebeckers as backward and present a choice between non-viable fictitious sides. At the turn of the century when Laurier was brought to power at the federal level, the liberal option served to take the Republican option off the table. Since then, passions continue to be created to foment divisions among the people so that they do not unite to bring modern political arrangements into being.

4. Also known as the override clause, Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution allows federal, provincial or territorial governments to temporarily override, or bypass, certain Charter rights. Section 33 overrides can last only five years, when they are subject to renewal. (“The Notwithstanding Clause,” Canadian Encyclopedia)

Renewal Update, October 10, 2019, No. 30

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