Thursday, September 12, 2013

This is Canada, according to the folks that you/we elected

I want to write about two very recent developments in Canadian politics, two things that seem largely separate and unconcerned with one another but strike me as very much related. Intentionally or not, both say a whole lot about what and who counts as "Canadian" and why - even when that's not what they think they're saying at all.

So, this is the first. It comes courtesy of Quebec's provincial government, which has drafted a "Charter of Values" that would ban public servants from wearing "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols. In the picture below, the bottom two rows show what constitutes "overt and conspicuous", while the top row shows, I dunno, examples that are presumably covert and inconspicuous. Or something. Some of the differences are obviously arbitrary, others are entirely too ambiguous, while the rest are just demonstrably racist.

Seriously, what's the difference between the first and second crucifix? One's small and one's bigger, sure, but what's the dividing line? At what point does a crucifix stop being small enough? Is there a particular length, mass, or volume? And, because there must be some standard that pertains to one or all three of these aspects, what is it and how did you determine that it achieved the necessary level of "conspicuousness"? And will the religious symbol police carry rulers and/or scales?

So, yes, this is obviously not actually about banning conspicuous symbols or defending Quebecois values so much as it is about putting the Other in their place and demonstrating who belongs and who does not. It really couldn't be any plainer.

And not just who belongs in Quebec. Because there's something very similar happening at a totally different level of government, in a totally different portfolio. Just check out some of these images from our new passports:

I think I spotted at least one person of colour, in an RCMP image. And Heather Mallick with the Toronto Star says that, across all the images, men outnumber women by a ratio of 16-to-1. These are terrible oversights. But they're also clear indications of hegemonic Canadian "values" - just as much as that poster is - and, in particular, of who and what counts as Canadian. That is, of who can comfortably call themselves Canadian. And it gets worse.

You might be wondering why I started with that Samuel de Champlain image. It's because the passport images are effectively placed in a chronology, with Champlain serving as the beginning of Canada. 'But it says page six, so surely there are other pages!', you say. 'And what about Aboriginal people?', you ask? Well, they do earn a token appearance on the previous page:

But that doesn't make them the origin of Canada in the narrative that the passport is advocating, oh no. This isn't presented as history, but as prehistory. In the logic of the feds, these aren't people or meaningful events, but symbols, artifacts best kept in a museum, representing some long-extinct community. There are no names or places or dates, here, and the symbols themselves are stripped of all context and specificity, reducing them to something generalized, depersonalized, and thusly unimportant. (Is that a particular inuksuk? Is it someone's approximation of one? Is it clip-art? Apparently, the answer doesn't matter.)

To add insult to the injury, of course, these are important symbols. They just aren't accorded any importance in the passport - at least, not enough importance to bother naming them or placing them within the narrative of the nation. And so appropriately, and depressingly, Aboriginal people are also absent from the rest of the passport images.

And so the Quebec that the "Charter of Values" from the Province of Quebec imagines? It excludes the same people that the Government of Canada does with the new passport. Hilariously - because Quebecois separatists and Conservative federalists imagine themselves ideologically opposed - they appear to be describing the exact same place.

And it's a place that requires a certain degree of hypocrisy and willful blindness. Because the Conservative Government of Canada actually opposes the "Charter of Values", which is motivated at least partly (and cynically) by the need to keep their lead among "New" Canadians. Because English Canadians get to respond with smug moral superiority, even as polls suggest that nearly half of us think the ban is a good idea. Because, ironically, Quebec's government fails to notice and condemn the conspicuous religious symbols contained in their own flag.