Wednesday, September 11, 2013


When the Province of Quebec first floated the idea of banning from the public service conspicuous” religious symbols (large crosses, turbans, hijabs, kippahs, etc.) the predictable reaction focused on individual human rights. These concerns are legitimate, but there is another concern that’s receiving less attention than it deserves. What happens to a society when it systematically excludes portions of the population from full public participation?

This banning will have little effect on Christians who, generally speaking, are not obliged to wear “conspicuous religious symbols”. Monks and Nuns dress in habits, and priests in clerical collars, but these symbols have become optional.  Most Christian clerics, and almost all Christian lay people are free to dress in “secular” garb. The few exceptions – Amish Mennonites and Hutterites are the only ones that come readily to mind – are expressions of their own desire to stand apart. So this ban will effectively exclude only non-Christians.

For a practicing Sikh, an orthodox Jew, a committed Muslim, these symbols are not optional. They are required expressions of their devotion. Excluding these symbols will exclude these people, not just from working in a given milieux, but from participation. Why would a Muslim mother want to send her child to a school where she would not be welcome to teach? Why would a Sikh father wish take his child to a clinic where he would not be welcome to work?

When we see a turban-wearing Sikh teaching in a school, or working in a government office, we don’t see a school system or government promoting religion, but a religiously committed citizen being included in the life of the community. And when we see this we recognize that the community is larger than our community. We see ourselves as part of a province, a nation, a state.

When a province, nation or state practices exclusionary politics, it invites disaster. It encourages bigotry and prejudice (suspicion of the other). It disrupts social cohesion and systematically fosters fragmentation, rivalry and misunderstanding. As a non-Quebecois I realize that Quebec may have reasons for doing this that I can’t understand, but I still wonder if they really see what they are doing.

As a Sovereignist, of course, I remain confident that the Quebecois can work all this out. They are as smart in their peculiar way as we are in ours. And, if they do happen to screw it up, the Rest of Canada will gain the benefit of a powerful experiment in social engineering, not to mention an influx of very capable Quebec refugees.

For us, at least, it’s a win/win.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


When I was a young man living in Edmonton I was a Separatist. Not one of those naive ideologues who imagined Alberta going it alone as a separate country, but a Quebec Separatist. I felt it was perfectly understandable, perhaps inevitable, that Quebec would eventually choose to become a sovereign nation. Canada had done it, why not Quebec? My few Quebecois friends were offended. No matter how much I protested that I was a genuine Sovereignist, they insisted on interpreting my stance as either a hostile rejection of Quebec, or "calling the bluff". My Quebecois friends were not Sovereignists, so they found my acceptance of Quebec sovereignty upsetting and confusing. They insisted I was just posturing because they wanted to believe I was. I wasn't.

I'm not Quebecois, and I have little appreciation of what it means to preserve an island of Quebecois culture in an Anglo sea. This is why we have sovereign countries; so peculiar people can develop peculiar solutions to their peculiar problems, without imposing their solutions on other equally peculiar people who have different and equally peculiar problems. In other words, I believe in Quebec, and I think we should trust the Quebecois to sort themselves out.

We don't have any language police where I live. And, when I hear of debates over whether you can sell "Pasta" in an Italian restaurant, or clerks being fined because they said "Hello" before they said "Bonjour", I'm glad we don't. Quebec looks silly when they do these things, but things often look silly to those who don't understand.

Now Quebec Premier, Pauline Marois, is promoting the idea of banning "religious" symbols in the Service de Publique. This seems silly to me, but what do I know? If the Quebecois want to establish a Government dress code, hairstyle or funny walk let them try. They're a democracy, and the people of Quebec are free to change the government, leave the civil service, withhold their taxes, practice civil disobedience, or move to more hospitable regions of the country as the Mayor of Calgary has been encouraging them to do. As long as they're part of Canada, of course, they'll have to deal with a Supreme Court that will ultimately decide if what they’re trying to do is constitutional. And if they’re told it isn’t Quebec can still leave. They are a peculiar people, with their own peculiar problems. And I’m still a Sovereignist.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Help is helpful only if it helps.

Yesterday, on Facebook, my brother Joe posted an interesting comment:

I was watching a fascinating documentary last night. It explored a complicated political situation in a developing country engaged in a horrific civil war that dragged on over a couple of years. As the war escalated the 'rebels' were attacked by the most technologically advanced military weapons, with unimaginable and ever-increasing death tolls in the thousands and tens of thousands....  While superpowers tried to sort out how or if they should get involved, and if their involvement might plunge the world into a much more serious and broader war. Of course the superpowers had their own self-interest behind there support of the "rebel" faction.
The documentary was Ken Burns study of the American Civil War. The superpowers were Britain and France and the rebels held cotton the British needed to keep their economy 'well oiled'. And by and large the folks who were dying in droves were the poor.
Of course, the more things change the more they stay the same.

History is a great teacher. The world has been at war since Cain killed Abel as each individual and group tries to ensure it’s own interests. We try to protect the interests of others when it’s consistent with our own interests. We seek to spare innocent bystanders if it can be done without hurting our own interests. We appeal to universal standards of justice and morality inasmuch as these standards coincide with our own interests. I think you get the picture.

Though individuals, groups and nations love to talk of the interests of the poor and vulnerable, the bottom line is almost always some version of own interests. So, perhaps we may as well concede this and talk about America's interests.

1.    It’s in America’s interest to deal with it’s Lone Ranger complex. America is not responsible for every injustice just because it imagines it’s the only nation that can do anything about it.

2.    It’s in America’s interest to submit to international law if it wants to be able to appeal to that law when it’s in its interest to do so.

3.    And, in this particular case, it’s in America’s interest to recognize that these are Muslim nations with their own particular problems and their own particular interests.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the US, instead of threatening and intimidating the nations of this region of the world, were to humbly invite them to sit down with a “coalition of the willing” and help us all find a way to be helpful. Right now these nations are preoccupied with the threat of military intervention in the region. But what if we acknowledged that this is essentially their problem, expressed our willingness to help them deal with it, and backed it all up with a credible threat of non-intervention?

In the end the Americans, in spite of hundreds of thousands of casualties, worked out their terrible civil war without any great “help” from the British, French or world. And, as the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington reminds us, they’re still working it out. Race harmony in America is an American problem that few outside America really understand. Help from their traditional allies and friends, if offered humbly, just might help. The threat of military intervention from Russia and China probably wouldn’t.