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Hearts, minds and headgear

My own private Quebec Charter of Values.

Illustration of people helping someone in a wheel chair
Illustration by/par Stephen Maceachern

My forebears did not participate in the Battle of the Plains of Abra­ham, not on the winning side and certainly not on the losing side. Bereft of this historical consciousness, there is no way I can ever understand what Quebec people say is their struggle to maintain their separate and distinct cultural identity.

The PQ professes that the proposed Quebec Charter of Values is about secularism. There is no denying that its critical and most controversial feature is the ban on religious headgear and overt religious symbols in the public sector. A common lament at the recently concluded public hearings is that “Quebeckers need this charter to prevent their identity from being stripped from them.” Indeed, Premier Pauline Marois herself was quoted widely as saying the new charter was required to avoid the “multicultural” mistake of the U.K., which has resulted in “people bashing each other over the head.”

Speaking of multiculturalism, as I write this, my family and I are preparing to celebrate the Lunar New Year. We’re shopping at the T&T Supermarket, which my kids have dubbed the “Asian Disneyland.” To usher in the Year of the Horse, 19-year-old Kate is purposely picking out the tackiest possible New Year’s decorations. Later, she curses the long line-up for the barbecue pork. I tell her the words for ordering two pounds, sliced, making sure she makes the chopping gesture in case the guy with the meat cleaver can’t understand her horrible accent. Later, we’ll integrate our cultural festivities seamlessly with watch­ing the Super Bowl.

Recently, a cab driver in Calgary asked me whether I could accommodate his prayer schedule by slightly delaying my return trip to the airport if I wasn’t in a hurry.  He needed to stop at his mosque to pray at a certain time before picking me up. Faith is of no importance to me, but it is to others. Infidel that I am, I had a beer while I waited.

At the airport lounge in Edmonton a while ago, I noticed three young men, maybe in their early 20s, with tattooed biceps, muscle-shirts and ball caps. They kidded each other and guffawed. To me, a guy wearing a baseball cap backward automatically means meathead. The whole purpose of wearing a ball cap is so the bill can keep the sun out of your eyes. Why would anyone wear one backward?

Their accents suggested to me they were good ol’ boys from some southern U.S. state. I immediately labelled them as rednecks, imagined their conversation was about huntin’ and monster pulls, and was reminded of the marauding crew who terrorized the protagonists in the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs, set in rural Mississippi.

When it was time to board, there was a delay at the top of the escalator leading to the departure gate. A Sikh family, all dressed in traditional clothing, was having difficulty negotiating the escalator. They had a ton of carry-on bags and an elderly family member in a wheelchair. They couldn’t get down either the escalator or the stairs with the wheelchair, creating a traffic jam for the planeload of passengers pushing forward.

The young men from the South were right behind the Sikh family and I heard them muttering about the unnecessary holdup. I sensed there might be trouble brewing and began scanning for security.

But I was wrong. The next thing I saw was two of the young men carrying the elderly man in his wheelchair down the stairs. The third was helping the Sikh family with their carry-on luggage, all of it done with good nature.

At that moment, I felt silly, if not ashamed. I had done an unpardonable thing that people of good conscience are not supposed to do: I had made assumptions and passed judgment on others solely on the basis of their accents, headgear and clothing. I realized, Holy smokes, I’m a bigot.

In 1938, John Murray Gibbon first used the phrase “cultural mosaic” to describe Canada’s multicultural diversity in his book Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation, a work that is credited as the source of Canada’s official multiculturalism policy in the 1970s. I don’t think we’ve been bashing each other over the head too much.

Some say the Quebec Charter of Values is a calculated ploy to ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to majority government. Others are confident that the secular charter project will never survive scrutiny under the Canadian Charter.

In ways, politics and law are less important than hearts and minds.