Reasonable accommodation

Our friend and comrade Invisible Man has contributed stories before about life on the job. In this piece he provides an analysis of race and policy and movements in Quebec. In a time of crisis and with a potential for rising right-wing movements, his points are relevant to people around the world.

Submitted by Recomposition on December 29, 2011

Reasonable Accommodation
The accommodation debate began with the Dawson College shooting spree. Not many remember it now, but it’s a fact.

I remember sitting in a café near Guy-Concordia, hours after the tragedy in late 2006, with an Arab friend of mine – a Dawson student who’d narrowly missed the bullets himself. Still reeling from the shock, we both reacted to Kimveer Gill’s picture on the TV set by believing he was a White boy. But not the blonde sitting across the table from us. She knew right away that he wasn’t White, though she was hard-pressed to identify “what” he was.

Mere hours earlier, one of the fine journalists of Montreal had asked another near-victim (a Francophone White girl known to us) whether the shooter was “Arabe, pis terroriste?”

I think the translation gets through just fine.

To the credit of the Quebec media, though, the ethnicity of the shooter remained unknown for a few weeks. It didn’t become a big deal until much later – in a climate when his Punjabi-speaking mother had become a new journalistic “angle.”

But three days after the Dawson College shooting, Toronto journalist Jan Wong (for reasons best known to her alone) sparked heated controversy in her Globe and Mail column. She pointed out that the three school shootings in Quebec – at the Polytechnic, Concordia, and Dawson – were all carried out by members of ethnic minorities. And all in Quebec.

Wong pointed out that a racist society like Quebec’s would inevitably produce such aberrations from time to time, given its treatment of minorities.

I didn’t get the point of Wong’s argument then. Years in retrospect, I see that the Dawson shooting was just like Richard Wright’s Native Son all over again: complete with the minority criminal; the blonde murder victim, daughter of a well-placed Montreal family; a parallel true even to the media barrage that followed.

Perhaps Wong, of Chinese ancestry, born and raised in “cosmopolitan” Montreal, knew something about the subject of Quebecois racism. However, she tended toward contrasting “francophone, pure-laine” Quebec with Anglophone Canada in this respect; as if there were a difference.

The offices of Stephen Harper and Jean Charest both issued statements sharply condemning Wong and warning of future consequences. The House of Commons passed a resolution demanding an apology for the column. She never complied.

Given a month or two, Wong’s “neo-racism” (as someone called it) passed out of the public eye in Quebec. It seemed to us the issue had died down, but closer examination proved that it was actually continuing on a lower profile. Racist “letters to the editor,” which would normally have been edited or rejected due to their content, were approved for publishing: a warm-up exercise for the full-on media campaign that would follow.

Enter the US military and the US Department of Treasury. First, the Treasury banned Iranian nationals from holding US dollar accounts in Canadian banks. Second, the US company Bell Helicopter, based in Dorval (just outside of Montreal) took 24 employees off “sensitive” military contracts because of their nationality. At least two interns, a Venezuelan and an Arab, were let go.

It was a blatant case of Charter discrimination. Nobody gave a damn. The media began to talk about “accommodation.”

Soon afterward, the tiny Quebec town of Hérouxville passed an “immigrant code of conduct” that grabbed international headlines. Town leaders called for restrictions to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, advocating the declaration of a “state of cultural emergency” similar to the War Measures Act that quelled Quebec’s nationalist terrorists, the FLQ, in 1970. They claimed to ban such things as “stoning women,” and wearing face coverings on days other than Halloween. Later, André Drouin, town councilor, revealed the whole thing as a media stunt.

But the provincial election was coming up.

It would be rather tempting to dismiss the “code” as the product of small-town minds in sub-zero temperatures. But the race-baiting, now described as a “debate,” didn’t stop there. A news poll, published on front pages in giant print, claimed that some 60 percent of Quebecers reported themselves as “racist.”

Muslim girls wearing hijabs were banned from soccer and martial arts competitions. The wearing of veils at polling stations was outlawed at both the provincial and federal levels. Elements within the Montreal school board called for the abolition of hijabs in the public school system, and, of religious holidays for staff.

Orthodox Jews were accused of trying to oppress women by glazing the windows of the Parc Avenue YMCA, near a synagogue. Immigrants were accused of marrying their sisters to gain entrance to Canada. The popular animated show Têtes-à-claques had an episode where some White travelers to Africa were boiled in a pot by a bongo-beating cannibal. Someone found a Montreal cop’s blog, where a racist song about Blacks was set to a Caribbean calypso beat.

A mosque and a Torah school were firebombed within days of each other.

I remember a cartoon from back then. A Quebecois lumberjack has cut down a Christmas tree. “You can’t do that!” says another. “That’s favoring one religion over another!”

“But I cut it down with a kirpan!” smirks back the lumberjack.

Let me tell you, those were some tough days. But few non-Whites have ever wanted to be “accommodated.” We’ve wanted to be left alone.

Why, in Quebec of all places, would the pitting of immigrants against “Quebecois de souche” become so seriously a part of the political climate?

Since its colonization by English Canada, Quebec has been a centre of resistance. A dominant Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie, in alliance with the Catholic church and domestic political collaborators (such as Maurice Duplessis), produced its opposite in a culture of working-class resistance – which leaves its mark on Quebec’s collective consciousness to this day. Historically, Quebec has the highest rate of unionization (44%) and some of the most combative unions in North America. Quebec’s comprehensive social welfare programs, rent controls, and the generally progressive worldview of the Quebecer are a product of this protracted history of anti-imperialist class struggle.

It was this progressive worldview that led more than 60,000 to face down riot police in the streets of Quebec City against the FTAA in April, 2001. On September 9, 2002, hundreds gathered outside Concordia University to demonstrate against a speech of war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu – successfully shutting down the event. Over 100,000 Quebecers – Quebecois, Arab, and others alongside each other – demonstrated in the streets of Montreal against the invasion of Iraq, in the bitter cold of early 2003. May Day 2004 was attended by about 150,000 workers. In 2005, a massive student strike of 250,000, the largest since 1968, shut down the post-secondary educational sector, attracting massive public support. As late as 2006, even high-profile Quebec politicians such as Gilles Duceppe (leader of the federal Bloc Québecois), Liberal MP Denis Coderre, and Parti Québecois leader André Boisclair all felt the need to respond to rank-and-file pressure – by publicly joining street demonstrations of 15,000 against the bombing of Lebanon.

Each of these events had its own significance. But the common thread is that Quebec’s fundamental values appeared alien to those of the “accommodation debate.” On the surface, it seemed that Quebec’s history of resistance in times of imperialist war, and the cosmopolitan makeup of Montreal in particular, was a volatile mix that would permanently dictate political reality in Quebec. But clearly, this was a false assumption. What happened?

The Accommodation Debate’s Political Roots
As I’ll explain below, the racist debate was made possible by the Quebec labour leadership’s stifling of the workers’ initiative to take on the ruling class and its government. But the specific catalyst for the debate, and the ADQ’s masterful adaptation to it, traces itself back to the xenophobic mentality of the US’s “war on terror” – a mentality which, up till that time, was not prevalent in the Quebec political climate. Although most minorities came under attack at one point or another during the accommodation debate, special fire was directed at Arabs and Muslims, particularly Muslim girls and women. This was no coincidence.

After the federal Conservatives took power in 2007, the issue of Quebec posed a dire problem for the strategists of Canadian capital. Although the rural areas had largely swung Conservative, Quebec’s public opinion still ran high against the war in Afghanistan. And the Valcartier Brigade, composed of young Quebecers, was due for deployment to Afghanistan later that year.

Although these soldiers had been sent to Afghanistan before, this time the brigade was headed for the dangerous Southern region: there would inevitably be deaths and casualties. In the urban centres of Montreal and Quebec City, there would be a great risk of re-triggering the massive demonstrations that had accompanied the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Lebanon. (In fact, Prime Minister Harper admitted as much in a media interview.)

What, oh what, can an Albertan do with Quebec?

The invasion of Iraq was a key turning point in world politics; it became a litmus test of loyalty to the Bush clique’s vision for the dominance of the world by the US ruling class. It also spawned the largest global protest movement history has ever seen. Montreal’s demonstrations were the largest in Canada and ranked among the largest in North America. These demonstrations were a very clear indicator of the political reality in Quebec: Quebec was the centre of Canadian resistance to US foreign policy.

In December, 2004, the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party adopted a resolution against Canada’s participation in the Bush-initiated Continental missile shield. On the basis of a highly anti-Bush, anti-war population (especially in Quebec), these resolutions had significance for Martin’s leadership. The government finally announced that it would not participate in the ballistic missile shield initiative.

The Liberals were becoming less and less of a useful tool to US interests – and the Quebec factor played a huge role in this. The Conservatives’ ambitious “Canada First” defence policy, as posted on the party’s website at the time, included increasing military personnel to 75,000, militarizing the Arctic, the Great Lakes, and the coasts, and “ensur[ing that the] Canadian defence industry has access to the United States defence procurement market.” After Harper’s election, the military bureaucracy – and thus Canadian arms-manufacturers, with a material interest in US foreign policy – became the basis of Conservative rule.

In the following period, “Canada’s New Government,” as it referred to itself, went to great lengths to prove itself Washington-friendly. The war in Afghanistan became a major focus. NATO’s forces fell under Canadian command, while the Canadian military budget skyrocketed. Military recruitment and arms production became centres of attention.

Yet after all this time, and all these dramatic events, Quebec’s political climate remained opposed to the Conservative war agenda.

The link between the Conservative government and the “accommodation debate” was shown when, for no apparent reason, the ban on veils (or other “face coverings”) at the polling booth was extended from a provincial ban to a federal ban. The measure was announced, in French, during the Governor-General’s throne speech.

Social Roots of the Media Frenzy
The blame for the accommodation debate, lies squarely on the shoulders of the labour leadership of Quebec.

Allow me to explain myself.

Camouflaging its neo-liberal programme in “sovereigntist” rhetoric, the Parti Québecois had pursued austerity measures and anti-worker policies for years. The defeat of the PQ in 2003 was a reaction to its attacks on working people (and not a rejection of sovereigntist sentiment, or a victory of federalist policies). Quebecers voted them out, and voted in the Liberals, who’d promised more money for education and health care.

Once in power, a red-faced, corpulent provincial Liberal leader (formerly the charismatic, curly-haired federal Conservative leader named Jean Charest), introduced us to his unique expression, “la reingénierie de l’état.” New to the French language, this term “re-engineering of the state” found synonyms in the decade-old rhetoric of Ontario’s “Common Sense Revolution” or Alberta’s much-vaunted “Advantage.”

In one sweep, the Charest government attempted to eliminate the CEGEP system, passed Bill 142 which banned 500,000 public sector workers from striking, and lifted long-standing protective measures in the manufacturing sector (which contributed to the loss of over 100,000 manufacturing jobs since the Liberals took power – before the present economic crisis began in 2008).

Charest’s attacks were the signal that the cozy class collaboration secured by Premier Lucien Bouchard’s 1996 “zero-deficit” pact (uniting the PQ government, the main employers’ association, labour unions, and student federations) was no longer going to hold water. This unleashed a wave of protests from the unions and the students under the slogans: “Charest – Ostie de crosseur!” (“Charest: fucking jerkoff,” the main labour slogan) and “La paix sociale est terminée!” (“The social peace is over!,” student union ASSÉ’s slogan).

Post-election 2003 saw a push toward a general strike. This call got the overwhelming support of the union rank and file. The CSN labour federation took the initiative and received a full mandate for a general strike. The larger FTQ received 90% ratification from its member locals. As a barometer of the scope of the movement, May Day 2004 was attended by an overwhelming 150,000 workers. But the upsurge was undercut: under the guise of a “holiday truce” for the 2004 Christmas season, the general strike was quietly scuttled.

I remember it well. When the 60-year protective legislation of the garment industry was lifted in 2003, I somehow managed to survive a 10 percent reduction in the industry’s labour force (no doubt due to the intervention of my union representative). Every worker I knew was ready for a fight with the government. But the moment never came.

The climate of demoralization that set in following the betrayal of the labour leaders was the precondition for the rise of a reactionary current like the ADQ. But the vacuum was not immediately filled by the right wing.

The Quebec student strike of 2005 became a catalyst for the underlying discontent in Quebec: as the only sector of society which was willing to take on the government, the students received massive popular support from the middle classes as well as unemployed associations, some unions, and the public at large – who joined their demonstrations in the tens of thousands.

But just as the appeal of the student strike began to swing in broader strokes, the “appeasement” wing of the student movement (the FÉCQ/FÉUQ leadership) moved for calm, after five weeks of striking. While the strike did force the government to back down, all that it actually achieved was to maintain the status quo.

Public disappointment with the labour leadership turned the turmoil in Quebec into its opposite. The student movement had lost its momentum – and, even at its peak, could only provide token support to the workers’ struggle. People kept losing their jobs; the middle class, particularly, felt the squeeze. Precisely when the majority of Quebecers were looking for firm solutions, and a strong, principled stand, an ossified union bureaucracy stalled the movement, and a vacuum of leadership emerged.

In the absence of the organized militancy of the unions, the employers’ associations regained the upper hand. But they needed a new political tool in government; neither the PQ nor the Liberals were credible leaders any longer. This meant that a wing of the employers’ associations would aggressively back a new party, to channel the alienation of the middle class and rural areas behind its social agenda.

Enter Mario Dumont.

Dumont had founded the Action Démocratique du Québec at the tender age of 24. The tiny centre-right party had never had much to offer the Quebec voter. In the 2003 election, soaring predictions had been made about the ADQ’s potential; but it had wound up with a total of five seats. The ADQ was laughed off as far too conservative for the Quebec taste, and openly criticized as too close to the US Republican party.

Beginning his career as a “sovereigntist Liberal,” then flirting with the PQ, Dumont’s ADQ incarnation had shifted gears from “sovereignty” to “autonomy.” In 2005, he professed support for the student strike. In 2006, he condemned the transit workers’ strike. But for all his serpentine motions, few were paying attention.

In 2007 – the election mere weeks away – Monsieur Dumont showed up in Herouxville. Now everyone was paying attention.

The Quebec media, diligently finding something wrong with every ethnic group in Quebec but the Québécois de souche and White Anglo-Canadians, apparently suffered from short-term amnesia when it came to dealing with the root of the debate. Why should Iranians be banned from holding American currency? Was it unjust to fire people because of their national origin? Did this American behaviour violate the “codes of conduct” known as the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights? If these events could happen in Quebec, in Canada, did it say something about the state of national sovereignty in the current political context?

Substituted for these questions were the pressing concerns of journalistic integrity: How can we stop immigrants from imposing themselves on us? Why are they terrorists? Shouldn’t they be forced to act like us? Doesn’t the Charter force us to violate “our” cultural values and destroy “our” true identity?

“How many?” the headlines would ask coyly. “Too many!” Dumont would fire back into the TV cameras, broadcasting his dead-eyed stare and thinly pressed lips in simulacrum of political worthiness. Repeat ad nauseum.

Once it had captured centre stage, the ADQ made gestures toward the middle class, hinting that its “high rate of taxation” was solely due to parasitic transit and city workers, daycare workers, and students all demanding too much of the public purse – and constantly threatening to strike. (Naturally, M. Dumont failed to mention that eliminating these nuisances would also be of great interest to the ruling class.) At its root, the ADQ programme proposed an alliance between the middle class and employers’ class, to break the powerful public sector unions and the restive student movement.

Having fallen under the wheels of business and government, trampled over by hundreds of thousands of demonstrating workers and students, the PQ’s paix social now lay dead in Quebec’s streets. “We need a firm hand, like in the good old days!” shouted the employers’ associations. We need a firm hand, like Maurice Duplessis, hinted the media. “The immigrants and the unions are holding Quebec hostage,” Dumont read from his cue cards. “I look to Duplessis as a model.”

And so it was that Pinocchio became a real boy.

On March 26, 2007, the face of Quebec politics changed dramatically. The Parti Quebecois saw a massive defeat, falling to 36 seats and forcing leader André Boisclair to declare that sovereignty was off the agenda “for the short term.” The ADQ jumped from five seats to 41. This put them only seven seats behind the minority Liberal government. It was the first minority government in 139 years in Quebec.

In his “victory speech,” Dumont referred to his party’s electoral success as “a revolt of the middle class and the rural areas.”

The PQ went through a painful identity crisis, its various internal factions chewing at the innards of what was now little more than a political corpse.

After the elections (amidst feverish media prattling about a “constitutional crisis” which might force a change of government to the ADQ), the minority Liberals gave a conscious and public response to the ADQ’s focus on the middle class. It used federal transfer payments – intended for health and education funding – to grant a $1 billion dollar tax cut to the (upper) middle class.

And the media applauded. Perhaps the newsrooms received boxes of chocolates from the Conseil du patronat du Québec. Probably not.

The accommodation debate was a well-orchestrated ploy by the organized capitalist class to capture the anger of middle-class and rural Quebecers at itself, substituting racial and religious minorities as scapegoats. Rallying them behind the ADQ, Quebec’s economic leaders turned these new social allies against their old enemies: the organized working class and student unions.

The cover of political observer l’Actualité, following the Quebec elections, bore Mario Dumont’s face – accompanied by the headline: “Harper owes me one.” Indeed. Perhaps some credit might have been extended to the media corporations, Bell Helicopter and the US Treasury Department for their help as well.

Through Quebec’s accommodation debate – just as with Denmark’s “cartoon controversy” – the ruling class manufactured a tangible Arab, Muslim “enemy” where none previously existed, in an attempt to promote increased military spending and recruitment, and the deployment of soldiers in Afghanistan to a public solidly opposed to the war.

Agent provocateur
Another personality came onto the scene, providing a perfect counterpoint to Dumont’s demagoguery. During the days of the cartoon controversy, a Montreal imam at al-Qods Mosque had begun making a name for himself as spokesperson for the Muslim community. Said Jaziri led a peaceful protest against the publication of the cartoons and the defamation of Islam. At the time, no one knew who he was.

Mr. Jaziri reappeared when the town of Hérouxville passed its infamous “immigrant code of conduct.” Just as Mario Dumont made his name by visiting Hérouxville to support the “code,” Jaziri made his by traveling there to oppose it. He publicly visited Hérouxville with his wife – who wore a hijab, but did not cover her face, in strict accordance with the town’s law.

Said Jaziri quickly became a media personality, and was presented as the Muslim authority on the accommodation debate. In many ways, he provided the perfect foil so that the “debate” could continue.

Apparently, all this high-profile activity took place while the imam was undergoing a review of his refugee claim. Jaziri was deported from Canada to his birthplace of Tunisia, where he claimed he risked being tortured or killed. Canadian authorities accused him of hiding a police record he had accumulated in France. According to the Montreal Métro of October 16, 2007, Mr. Jaziri defended himself by saying that “his judicial record had been erased after he had accepted to collaborate with French security forces.”

His record of public service couldn’t save him. Exit Jaziri.

In an interview with a Quebecois talk show host (who began one sentence with: “If I were to rape you here today…”) Samira Laouni, NDP candidate, described Jaziri as an “agent provocateur.”

The Accommodation Debate in International Context
On February 7, 2008, the Associated Press published the following regarding the Spanish elections:

Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, campaigning for March 9 general elections, presented a proposal Wednesday in the Catalonia region, home to the heaviest concentration of immigrants in any part of Spain. Immigrants…would be granted the same rights and benefits as Spanish citizens if they complied with the proposed rules, Rajoy said. Specifically, he said, immigrants seeking to renew a one-year residency permit should have to sign a legally binding document pledging to “obey the laws, respect Spanish customs, learn the language, pay their taxes and work actively to integrate themselves into Spanish society and return to their country if during a period of time they cannot find work.” Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba called the proposal meaningless because immigrants already have to abide by the law and enjoy rights, just like Spaniards…. The proposal is widely seen as mimicking one that Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through in France in 2004 when he was France’s interior minister.

Naturally, it reminded some of us in Quebec, of Herouxville’s “immigrant code of conduct.” After securing the thinnest of majorities in yet another election, the Liberals adopted a similar measure to recoup any remaining support for the ADQ.

What Does it Mean for Worker Revolutionaries?
The accommodation debate was a means of buying off the Quebecois working class, by portraying immigrant and minority workers as a threat to the Quebecois national identity – and Canada’s national security. It was used to build up a right-wing party that would defend the interests of the capitalist class more intensely, employing demagogic sentiments that tried to play workers against the middle class, and Quebecois workers against everyone else on the shop floor.

The accommodation debate was also useful to the ruling class in that, to a certain extent, it divided the left. The unions were silent on the issue, with even the CSN leadership merely encouraging its members not to vote ADQ. Even some “revolutionaries” on the left were not immune to the climate.

But as the war in Afghanistan continues, and the working class re-arms itself for a renewed struggle with Capital, there are lessons to be learned and events to prepare for.

The racism which characterizes the “war on terror,” and the witch-hunt atmosphere of the accommodation debate, were and are good for employers. In addition to fostering a receptive climate to arms production, the military, and the reactionary ADQ, the accommodation debate helped further develop an underclass of low-paid, desperate-for-work non-White employees.

The legal restrictions on civil liberties which the ruling class imposes on us today in the name of “national security” will be turned against militant workers, of whatever melanin concentration, tomorrow. Meanwhile, company owners deliberately stir up racial animosities and favouritism in the workplace – in order to break strikes, drive out unions, and ultimately drive down wages and working conditions. It is not “terrorists,” but rather the capitalist class, who conduct an assault on the way of life that workers have fought for.

If one section of the working class is weakened, the class as a whole becomes more vulnerable to the overall aims of the capitalist class. If the unemployed are not organized, they will be used as scabs. If the workers’ organizations do not provide the lead, the vacuum will be filled by religious fundamentalists and White nationalists, who will exacerbate the conflict to their own ends.

The capitalist class can be relied on to whip up racism again and again in more and more vicious forms in their battle to conquer the workers’ movement. Instead of using war budgets to ameliorate the conditions that produce unrest among workers and students, the ruling class chooses to demonize anyone who looks like the “enemy,” worships like the enemy, or merely has the bad luck of working in the wrong factory at the wrong time – trying to play worker against worker.

But perhaps the experience of 2007, the ADQ and reasonable accommodation, can serve as an inoculation against the rhetoric of the bourgeois populist. Or, there is another possibility.

Instead of public opposition to the war in Afghanistan, or outcry against US government interference with workers on Canadian soil (both of which had been part of the social reality before the media campaign), the climate in Quebec was one of ethnic polarization, mutual distrust, and increased racial harassment from police officers and ordinary citizens. Then, on Sunday, August 10, 2008, following the police killing of an 18-year-old mechanics student, the streets of North Montreal went up in flames.

Borough mayor Marcel Parent exclaimed in bewilderment: “What happened there was absolutely unforeseeable. People in Montréal-Nord are not rebellious.”

“For two years we’ve been expecting that at any given moment, things would explode,” Harry Delva, a Montréal-Nord social worker, told le Journal. Two years. That takes us to mid-2006, when the harsh gusts of the “accommodation debate” began to spew from the media outlets.

“He who sows the wind, shall reap the whirlwind,” said the Old Testament prophet.

Originally posted: December 29, 2011 at Recomposition