Are Quebecers less tolerant than other Canadians? Ongoing debate about secularism and religious symbols has led many observers to ask this very question. Premier François Legault denies that racism or Islamophobia exists in Quebec, even after a gunman opened fire in a Quebec City mosque in 2017, killing six people and wounding 19 others. Two years later, the Quebec government established Bill 21, a religious symbols ban for public employees. The province's increasingly diverse new reality is sometimes embraced and sometimes met with hostility from alt-right groups and emboldened anti-immigrant sentiment. What does diversity mean for the Quebec identity? Who gets to consider themselves a Quebecer? The author, a young journalist who moved to Quebec City from Saskatchewan, has some critical questions for the adopted province she loves.
About the author
Raquel Fletcher is the Quebec National Assembly reporter for Global News. She was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and is a graduate of the University of Regina School of Journalism. She is a world traveler, proud francophile, and dog lover. She lives in Quebec City.
Excerpt: Who Belongs in Quebec?: Identity Politics in a Changing Society (by (author) Raquel Fletcher)
They told us they would send us home if we were caught speaking English. For three days, I made a valiant effort. I courageously ate the creton they served us for breakfast without knowing what it was. When I learned the word for soap and could finally ask the resident assistant for some for my dorm, the relief was palpable. But when the woman at the convenience store did not understand my accent as I asked for stamps--timbres, so hard to pronounce--I was forced to stoically admit defeat. La Pocatière is a small, picturesque town on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, just over an hour north-east of Quebec City--and my new home for a five-week French immersion program. I had never seen such a luscious green landscape, nor tasted strawberries so sweet. And I had never been so frustrated! I was a 19-year old prairie girl away from home for the first time, unable to speak with my family for longer than 20 minutes a week (as per immersion rules), and I knew so little French that I couldn't speak much with anyone else. A fellow student from Saskatchewan, with whom I'd bonded right away, proposed a cheat day: let's go find a local bar somewhere off campus where none of the professors can hear us speak English. That's where we met Albert. We had to make him write his name down on a napkin before we understood. The way he pronounced it, without the t at the end, Albert sounded so foreign to me. It was in that bar, over one-too-many pints of Quebec-brewed blanche beer that I discovered that this province, which refers to itself as a nation, had more to teach me than just French. For the next two hours--in our limited French, Albert's equally limited English, and lots of pantomime and napkin sketches--we discussed everything from politics to travel to the elusive Canadian identity. Albert even wrote us a list of all the main Québécois swear words--the most important French vocabulary we would ever learn, he told us. I had applied to this program because I wanted to be bilingual. This was a must, as I wanted to become a political journalist. I hadn't expected to fall in love with this language, this culture, this people. People as curious about the world as I was, people willing to spend hours miming words to help me learn French, teach me new expressions, and share their culture with open arms. Eight years later, I was offered the job as National Assembly correspondent for Global News and moved to Quebec permanently. This would be one of the biggest challenges of my career, especially as an Anglophone journalist interpreting what happens in Quebec for the rest of the country. How, for instance, do you explain that this "staunchly secular" society, as a former assistant news director once described it, also demands that the Ministry of Culture pour millions of dollars into the preservation of old churches? It makes perfect sense to people here, but is a head-scratcher outside the province.Quebec is 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 is increasingly modern and global, diverse and multicultural, particularly in its biggest city, and yet, some nationalists defend what could be characterized as anti-immigration policies in the name of protecting the French language. In this respect, the political context in Quebec is indeed different--even distinct--from the rest of Canada. That's what makes the story of Quebec so gripping. And so difficult to report! It is all too easy for journalists--particularly journalists who aren't reporting from Quebec--to get it wrong and miss important nuances. In recent years, since the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting and the political debates leading up to the new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government pledge to ban religious symbols and reduce the number of immigrants, many commentators and politicians asked: Are Quebecers intolerant? Islamophobic? Racist? You may have raised some of the same questions. Surely there must be an undercurrent of intolerance that led 28-year old Alexandre Bissonnette to walk into a mosque and fire off nearly 50 rounds of ammunition, killing six people and wounding 19 others. Bissonnette pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years. In police interrogation video, Bissonnette admits he targeted the mosque because he believed some of the worshipers were Islamist terrorists. In another incident that garnered national headlines, a small group of Quebecers succeeded in blocking a private land sale in their community, ensuring that plans for a Muslim cemetery could not go ahead. That the bodies of five of the six victims of the mosque attack had to be repatriated to their home countries because there was nowhere here to bury them did not enter into it.Many have criticized the fact that despite Quebec's quest to establish a secular society, Christian religious symbols, such as crosses and crucifixes, are given a pass, even when they appear as prominently as on the provincial flag or in public institutions, while other symbols--hijabs and turbans, for instance--are viewed as ostentatious, oppressive and unacceptable. Yet, Quebec Premier François Legault tells a room full of journalists he doesn't believe Islamophobia exists in Quebec. When I moved here in 2016, it was clear that the accommodation of diverse cultures had become a necessary new reality for Quebec, a reality embraced in some quarters and met with hostility in others. Following the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, Quebec has also seen the emergence of alt-right groups and emboldened populist and anti-immigration sentiment. François Legault has even been described as the Trump of Quebec.After the CAQ came into power with a sweeping majority in October, 2018, it introduced not only Bill 21, legislation that bans religious symbols for some public servants, but also a bill that limits the number of immigrants allowed into the province and imposes a values test. Though severely criticized for these measures in English-language media across the country, the Premier has been unapologetic, saying it's his job to represent what Quebecers want, not to justify himself to the rest of Canada. The time is rapidly approaching, however, when Quebecers will have to justify their decisions to themselves. During public hearings on Bill 21, people speaking in favour of the bill and those speaking against it often seemed to be talking past each other. Can those supporting diversity and those supporting the protection of traditional Quebec culture agree on a common national project? They might have to. While Quebec City "trash radio" hosts, with large loyal followings, continue to make openly Islamophobic comments on air, more and more Quebecers are fighting for space for minority views in the public discourse. Quebecers will also have to contend with the fact that a common national identity will be harder and harder to define, if such a thing as a Quebec identity can still exist in an ever-evolving and increasingly global society. And they'll have to decide who belongs here.