O Mordecai! thou shouldst be living at this hour, or, The Perils of Pauline, by Linda Leith
18 August 2012


Looking at the Quebec election through a literary lens, there are two writers who come to mind. One is Djemila Benhabib, who is running for the Parti Québécois in Trois-Rivières; the other is the late Mordecai Richler.

Benhabib first made her name as the author of a prize-winning anti-islamist essay entitled Ma vie à contre-Coran, Une femme témoigne sur les islamistes (VLB Éditeur 2009). 

Born in Ukraine and raised in Algeria in a secular, intellectual family, she moved to Quebec in 1997, where she was dismayed to see Islam confused with Islamism. In this election, she quickly became a household name when Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay complained of having difficulty pronouncing her name and was outraged that she would question the presence of the crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly. When Pauline Marois, head of the Parti québécois, defended her candidate, Trois-Rivières Mayor Yves Lévesque, who is a PQ supporter, chimed in to express his own concern that Benhabib (who lives in Gatineau) had been parachuted into the riding. 

Madame Marois has her own differences with Benhabib, whose secularism treats all religions equally, unlike the Charter of Secularism that Marois herself is proposing. Marois would ban religious symbols for Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and others in the public service, but she would allow for the wearing of “a small cross” and for the Catholic crucifix in the National Assembly.

Once upon a time, we could have depended on Richler to skewer Madame Marois for just such a move. In his bracing satirical essay Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992), RIchler railed against Quebec’s language laws. Not only that, but he did so on an international stage, for the essay first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker (23 September 1991). It's a book marked by inaccuracies and exaggeration, and many Québécois found it deeply offensive. To say that it made him enemies is to understate the reaction of outraged Quebec nationalists; it also had the effect of embarrassing them.

Madame Marois’s xenophobic move has rightly provoked outrage, even as it is clearly increasing her chances of becoming the first woman premier of Quebec. (The latest Leger poll has the Liberals and the upstart CAQ trailing the Parti Québécois by 5 and 6 percentage points, respectively.) It has even provoked some amusement, both in editorial cartoons and in a YouTube video showing a four-year-old girl easily pronouncing Djemila Benhabib’s name, but it has not yet provoked Richler-style satire. 

Were Richler alive today, he would be skewering PQ plans to extend the reach of the Charter of the French Language, he would go to town on this new Charter of Secularism. He might even embarrass Madame Marois. O Mordecai! thou shouldst be living at this hour.

For it’s one thing to impose secularization on society as a whole. It’s quite another to impose secularization only on minority groups, as Madame Marois is doing. Marois-style secularism is a reaffirmation of Quebec’s uniqueness, which is also its rejection of otherness.

Quebec’s strength is its tremendous sense of itself, its nous, its sense of who old-stock Quebecers are, what used to be called the appel de la race. The PQ  slogan in the current election is À nous de choisir. The appeal to this nous is a call to arms in defence of Quebec’s history and identity, of everything that made Quebec and its people what they are.

Madame Marois is not afraid to use the word nous. At the beginning of what is clearly a well-thought out campaign, Madame Marois was quoted on the PQ blog as saying, Nous avons le choix d’affirmer nos valeurs, notre langue, notre histoire, notre identité. Le choix de se tenir debout devant Ottawa! Le choix de devenir un pays!

This tremendous sense of itself is also Quebec’s weakness. It tells minorities that Québécois de vielle souche are the only people who matter here, and that Quebec’s French-speaking and Catholic history and traditions take precedence over everyone else’s. All the rest are second-class citizens. It’s one of the reasons so many First Nations, Anglo, and immigrant Quebecers shy away from Quebec nationalism.

Madame Marois views this as a key election: C'est un choix qui nous appartient à nous, les Québécois. What she does not add is that Quebecers are being asked to choose who “we” are. Who does the word nous include? It clearly includes the Mayors of Saguenay and Trois-Rivières. Does it include Djemila Benhabib, as well? Does it include Mordecai Richler? Does it include toi et moi? The Quebec I would like to live in includes all of the above. The Quebec I would like to live in has a public service that includes us all.

We’re a long way from that. An article in yesterday’s National Post remarks en passant that Quebec’s public service is now 95% “ethnic French-Canadian." Which would leave just 5% for all the rest of us put together. That’s the whole lot of us: Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Anglos, and all the rest of us “others.” This is the bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that there are so few of us in the Quebec public service that Madame Marois’s proposed Charter would make little practical difference. 

© Linda Leith 2012

Photo: Judith Lermer Crawley


Linda Leith is the author, most recently, of Writing in the Time of Nationalism (Signature 2010) and Marrying Hungary (2008) and is the publisher of Salon .ll. and Linda Leith Publishing.

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