November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada. When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867. The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada). Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada. As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably. The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary. For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force. The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military). For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns. And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.
The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of). This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.
But. The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together. Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out. Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic. And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. And the Prairie Provinces were brought in in 1905. But, this was not a united nation. No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.
This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one. This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver. Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax. But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.
Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together. The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.
The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949). This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.
But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many). The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.
As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada. Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically. And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.
The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism. The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem. He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.
When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog. The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).
But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over. As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course). No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada. And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.
Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918. Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions. And in Québec, tensions boiled over.
In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real. And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.
Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917
From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released). The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act. On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots. In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.
And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.
Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada. Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions. Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.
Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec. In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec. And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.
June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
At long last, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out from UBC Press. It is available in hardcover at present, though the paperback is coming in the fall.
I am particularly pleased with the cover and design of the book. The artwork on the cover come from my good friend and co-conspirator in Griff, G. Scott MacLeod. He and I have worked on The Death and Life of Griffintown: 21 Stories over the past few years.
Griffintown has long fascinated me not so much for the history of the neighbourhood, but the conscious effort by a group of former residents to reclaim it, starting in the late 1990s. I identified three men who were central to this process, all of whom have left this mortal coil in recent years: The Rev. Fr. Tom McEntee, Don Pidgeon, and Denis Delaney. These men worked very hard to make the rest of Montreal remember what was then an abandoned, decrepit, sad-sack inner-city neighbourhood. That Griff is known historically for its Irishness is a tribute to these men and many other former residents, most notably Sharon Doyle Driedger and David O’Neill, who worked tirelessly over the late 1990s and 2000s to reclaim their former home. The re-Irishification of Griffintown is the central story in my book. But I also look at the construction of Irish identity there over the 20th century, and the ways in which the Irish there performed every-day memory work to claim and re-claim their Irishness as they confronted their exclusion from Anglo-Montreal due to their poverty and Catholicism.
The Irish of Griffintown were fighters, they were insistent on claiming Home, even as that home disintegrated around them, due to deindustrialization and the infrastructural onslaught wrought by the Ville de Montréal, the Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Expo ’67. But, at the same time, they also left, seeking more commodious accommodations in newer neighbourhoods in the sud-ouest of the city, and NDG.
That these former residents could reclaim this abandoned, forgotten neighbourhood as their own speaks to the power of these people. These people were working- and middle- class men and women, ordinary folk from all walks of life, who were determined their Home not be forgotten. They re-cast Griff in their memories without the help of the state, without the help, to a large degree, of institutional Montreal.
I cannot over-state the impressive feat of these ex-Griffintowners. It has been a lot of fun to both study this process and work with and talk with many of those involved in this symbolic re-creation of Griff, drawing on an imagined history of Ireland and their own Irishness in the diaspora. And I am mostly relieved that the book is, finally, out.
May 31, 2017 § 1 Comment
Bill 101 is 40 years old this year. For those of you who don’t know, Bill 101 (or Loi 101, en français) is the Quebec language charter. It is officially known as La charte de la langue française (or French-Language Charter). It essentially establishes French as the lingua franca of Quebec. For the most part, the Bill was aimed at Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec. Just a bit under half of Quebec lives in Montreal and its surrounding areas, and this has been the case for much of Quebec’s modern history. Montreal is also where the Anglo population of Quebec has become concentrated.
When Bill 101 was passed by the Parti québécois government of René Levésque in 1977, there was a mass panic on the part of Anglophones, and they streamed out of Montreal and Quebec, primarily going up the 401 highway to Toronto. My family was part of this. But we ultimately carried on further, to the West Coast, ultimately settling in Vancouver. At one point in the 1980s, apparently Toronto was more like Anglo Montreal than Montreal.
Meanwhile, back in the metropole, nasty linguistic battles dominated the late 1980s. This included actual violence on the streets. But there were also a series of court decisions, many of which struck down key sections of Bill 101. This, in turn, emboldened a bunch of bigots within the larger Anglo community, who complained of everything, from claiming Quebec wasn’t a democracy to, amongst some of the more whacked out ones, that the Anglos were the victim of ethnocide (I wish I was kidding).
But, in the 30 years since, much has changed in Montreal. The city settled into an equilibrium. And I would posit that was due to the economy. Montreal experienced a generation-long economic downturn from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the mid-90s, after the Second Referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed in 1995 (the first was in 1980), the economy picked up. New construction popped up everywhere around the city centre, cranes came to dominate the skyline. And then it seeped out into the neighbourhoods. By the late 90s/early 2000s, Montreal was the fastest growing city in Canada. It has since long since slowed down, and Montreal had a lot of ground to catch up on, in relation to Canada’s other two major cities, Toronto and Vancouver. But the economic recovery did a lot to stifle not just separatism, but also the more radical Anglo response.
Last week, the Montreal Gazette published an editorial on the 40th anniversary of Bill 101. It was a shocker, as the newspaper was central to the more paranoid Anglo point-of-view, even as late as the mid-2000s. But, perhaps I should not have been surprised, as it was written by eminent Montreal lawyer, Julius Grey. He is one of the rare Montrealers respected on all sides. At any rate, Grey (who was also the lawyer in some of the cases that led to sections of Bill 101 being invalidated), celebrates the success of the Charte de la langue française. It has, argues Grey correctly, led to a situation where, in Montreal, both French and English are thriving. He also notes that there is much more integration now in Montreal than was the case in the 1970s, from intermarriage to social interaction, and economic equality between French and English. Moreover, immigrants have by-and-large learned French and integrated, to a greater or lesser degree, into francophone culture. Many immigrants have also learned English.
But the interesting part of Grey’s argument is this:
On the English side, dubious assertions of discrimination abound. It is important for all citizens to be treated equally, but often the problem lies in the mastering of French. The English minority has become far more bilingual than before, but many overestimate their proficiency in French, and particularly when it comes to grammar and written French. By contrast, francophones tend to underestimate their English.
In other words, speaking French is an essential to life in Montreal. And Anglos, I think, are more prone to over-estimating their French-language skills for the simple fact that it’s common knowledge one needs to speak the language.
Grey goes onto make an excellent suggestion:
These difficulties could be eased by the creation of a new school system, accessible to all Quebecers, functioning two-thirds in French and one-third in English. Some English and French schools would exist for those who do not wish to or cannot study in both languages, although most parents would probably prefer the bilingual schools.
However, this would never fly. The one-third English does not bely the demographics of the city (let alone the province, and I really don’t see the point of learning English in Trois-Pistoles). The urban area of Montreal is around 4 million (the population of Quebec as a whole is around 8.2 million). There are a shade under 600,000 Anglos in the Montreal region, largely centred in the West Island and southern and western off-island suburbs. That means Anglos are around 15% of the population of Montreal. The idea that Montreal is bilingual is given lie by these numbers.
Nonetheless, there is merit to this argument of an English-language curriculum in Quebec’s public schools (including in Trois-Pistoles). Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of the wider world, and global commerce tends to be conducted in that language. There is also the fact of the wide and vast English-language culture that exists around the globe. One of the things I enjoy about my own partial literacy in French (one that has certainly been damaged by not living in Montreal anymore) is the access to francophone culture, not just from Montreal and Quebec, but the wider francopohonie).
For any group of people or individual, there is a lot to be learned from bilingualism (or, multi-linguality). In Montreal (and Quebec as a whole), it could ensure that the city’s economic recovery in the past two decades continues. Along with this economic recovery has been a cultural renaissance in the city, in terms of music, film, literature, and visual arts. It is a wonderful thing to see Montreal’s recovery. And I want it to continue.
May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec. The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year. And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.
But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote. The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec). They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States. They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.
From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec. The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government. They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor. And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.
In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement. I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837. The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec. The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day. This is not, obviously, an actual translation. The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population. The results are more of the same. And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?” This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.
This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes. And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background. And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally. I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists. When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing. I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.
Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec. That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States. Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West. O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table. Both were Irishmen. Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest). The Griffintown Irish were radicals. They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.
And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred. They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement. Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November. This was the battle the Patriotes won. Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized. He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly. Both Nelsons survived the rebellions. Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.
Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city. In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided. It was class that cleaved the city. Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals. And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical. Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals. The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks. It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.
It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes. While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not. They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions. Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown. Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.
February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
Historians tend to take the long view of everything. We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world. We are just trained not to. And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society. One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state. Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.
Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war. Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance. But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.
But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought. And this was the idea of the rationalization of government. By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects. Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance. In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country. To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance. Still, it was a very dogged resistance. Yet, it was ultimately fruitless. State-sponsored education had arrived.
The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States. Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles. In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.
This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like. And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects. The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer. But the effects were the same. Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community. The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state. Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.
The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it. It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms). It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations. It knows where we live. It knows where we work. It knows how much we work and how much we make. It knows intimate details of our lives.
You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city. For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th. Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.
For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown. Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal). The building style is familiar.
The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction. And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America. The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.
These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it. These are overwhelming buildings. Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state. When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state. Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there. And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)
So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable. And so it is. But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more. The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.
And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation. Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.
And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.
December 6, 2016 § 2 Comments
Today is the 27th anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre, also known as the Montreal Massacre. On this morning, 6 December, in 1989, an armed gunman walked into the École Polytechnique, separated the men from the women, and shot 28 people, executing 14 female students. Why? Because they were women and he felt that feminists had ruined his life. As per usual, I refuse to name him. He should be forgotten, he does not deserve infamy (he killed himself at the scene). His suicide letter contained the names of 19 other Quebec feminists he wished to kill.
For Canadians of my generation, the Massacre was and remains deeply shocking. It resonates. I remember where I was when I heard the news, I remember the shock I felt, and then the anger. I grew up in a violent household, my mother the target of my step-father during drunken outbursts. His violence appalled me. All violence against women appalls me. Deeply.
And here we are, 27 years on, and violence against women is still prevalent. For this reason, name and remember the victims of the Massacre in Montreal 27 years ago, to honour them. May they continue to rest in peace:
- Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student, age 21.
- Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
- Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student, age 21.
- Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student, age 29.
- Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department, age 25.
- Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student, age 23.
- Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
- Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student, age 28.
- Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student, age 21.
- Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student age 20.
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student, age 31.
August 25, 2016 § 8 Comments
So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather. France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so. So you had to expect a backlash. But this is just downright stupid.
There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please). French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath. To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public. Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation. Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.
But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal. Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.
Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.
But in practice, it is something else entirely. This is racism. This is ethnocentrism. And this is stupid. Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism. It is neither. And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France. They are not about a lay, secular society. They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.
In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam. Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children. I kid you not. And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.
Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach. She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun. The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’ Again, I kid you not.
Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens. Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’ These are lofty goals. But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité. Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest. It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.
I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim. It only encourages them. It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals. And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.
News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not. Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).
It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.