Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alarm bells and what sets them off

There is another element in the distinction between Quebec and the rest of Canada and that is the general public approach to the involvement of government in our daily lives. There is a lot more of it here and it seems generally accepted. I'm not the best person to make this kind of analysis, because I rally against all bureaucracy, be it government, corporate or personal. Also, I lived half my life in the States where there is a much greater tendency to complain as a citizen and consumer.

Nevertheless, it seems that in Quebec the government asks a lot more of its citizens. And there are laws ensuring that you do what is asked. These laws seem, in principle, to be in direct violation of the individual freedoms I hold precious as a member of a free society. When I question the laws, the people act like I'm a little crazy.

Here is an example. I recently got a notice to renew my health card. Everyone in Quebec has to have a health card. It's probably more important as an identifier of who you are than your driver's license. The requirements for proving your residency are much harder for the health card than the driver's license, for instance.

With the notice was a flyer explaining the Quebec prescription drug plan. Everyone in Quebec must be covered by a prescription drug plan. If your employer doesn't provide you with one, you must indicate this and pay it in your taxes. If you are below a certain income level, you don't have to pay the taxes. Now personally, I think this is a good thing and this isn't the violation of freedom I am going to talk about.

When I called to renew my health card, I also said that I had a prescription drug plan provided by my employer. She started asking me all these questions. Exactly when did I get it? Why do you want to know? I asked. Am I going to be reimbursed for the money I unnecessarily paid in the last two years? She seemed miffed that I would ask such a question. Her answer was that it was the law. Then she started asking me about my conjointe's medical plan. I told her that I am not privy to that information. She said that it was also the law that I reveal how long my conjointe has had a prescription plan. When I kept pushing back on her with more questions, she did say that all of this info was held in the strictest confidence and that other branches of the government did not have access to it.

These kinds of questions struck me as being invasive of my privacy. I know they aren't a big deal and I ended up giving them the data they wanted. It's probably just to get their databases up to date, a motivation with which I am familiar and sympathetic.

It's the tone of the discourse that sets my alarm bells off. The way she just assumed that I would know to give her this info and the way any questions about it are brushed off with "it's the law." This sets my anglophone alarm bells ringing and I think it's the same for the old school anglophone minority here in Quebec. They see the kind of laws that came out of Bill 101, laws that restrict how you can express yourself, laws that go across private property (albeit commercial property) and they get alarmed.

And why do we get alarmed? I think you can take this all the way back to the Protestant/Catholic divide. The British are the champions of the kind of mercantilist liberty, whereas the French, though strong believers in liberty as well, have always been more comfortable with a healthy dose of government intervention. We North American anglophones moved even farther away from the British and the idea of things like nationwide school exams would be unthinkable here.

It's also important to remember that a strong portion of the anglophone minority in Quebec are Jewish. They are a people who will never forget where a few slightly invasive laws can lead.

So once again, trying to bridge the divide, I think it's important for francophones to understand some of the culture behind the aggressive reactions to the Quebec government's attempts to shore up the french culture and language here. It's not just that it's french and different and not ours. It's also the way it is applied. Personally, I am very supportive of the work that has been done in the last 40 years to keep the culture of Quebec strong, but when I hear some of Pauline Marois measures, such as forcing immigrants to sign a paper declaring they will follow the values here, I react strongly. My reaction is one of anger, which comes from fear (which leads to hate, and we all know where that leads). Yes, teach the language and the culture. Spend tons of state money on encouraging immigrants to embrace all that Quebec has to offer and to help it proliferate. But never let it not be a choice for me.

On the other hand, I think us anglophones must understand that there is also a lot of fear in the francophone community. The commercial power of english is so pervasive and subtle. Things in the majority always are. More and more in downtown Montreal one is approached by store employees in english. That sets off alarm bells in many francophones and it is natural for them to look to laws to prevent such a phenomenon from spreading. It seems like the only solution in the short term. As an anglophone here, though locally we are in the minority, we are, strangely, a minority, inside another minority, surrounded by our majority. You shouldn't forget that.

In general, we should all drop our reactive, defensive stances and work positively to encourage the adoption of french among immigrants and the acceptance of all minority groups here in Quebec.


Olivier said...

Always a pleasure to hear from you on my RSS reader!

That being said, two little, very little things:

The state, as an active entity, is a fairly recent thing in Québec. Mostly, it was built from the 60's onward, and enven then, the big interventionist state was mostly built in the late 60's up to the early 80's. It's a bureaucracy, sure, and a fairly active one at that. But it have been built on a strong foundation of public legitimacy. Politicians, powers that be, litterally built the thing pieces by pieces after being elected saying they would do so. And that was, oh, a generation away? And that legitimacy is still there. Just look at the attitudes of people toward the CPE.

This is, I think, a fairly important nuance that can help north americans understand what the hell is going on here (state run kindergardens? Oh my god! THEY ARE COMMUNISTS!).

Knowing that, this post of yours is fairly enlightening, I think.

Second little thing:

The whole shebang on signing papers about values isn't, sadly, a measure that is favoured by the PQ. The PLQ enacted something along those lines just before the elections. Nobody, in Quebec politics (be it federal or provincial politicians), is abov playing to the fears of certain portions of the francophone majority.

It saddens me to say it, but I look at the current political landscape and I see no bridge builders. Living both in Québec City and Montréal (my third home being the Orléans Express on the 20) I just don't see that as a fair representation of the preoccupations of the population.

WeSailFurther said...

"...and I think it's the same for the old school anglophone minority here in Quebec."

Do you find many anglopones speaking out share your concerns, or is it a less public atmosphere...grumbling, maybe, or is it a more militant, Stated Position?

OlmanFeelyus said...

Olivier, thanks for the knowledge that the active state is something that came out of la Révolution tranquille. I had assumed it was a hold over from the days when the French owned Canada. That helps my understanding of the acceptance of those kinds of questions. People living today were imvolved in its development, so it makes sense there would be a high comfort level. I am ignorant of so much of the history here.

Jarrett, anglophones here have no trouble sharing their opinion about various abuses of Bill 101 or l'office de la langue française. Online or in person, they are quite vocal (some might say whiny; though at times there is justification). I suspect when there are problems, it's usually a misapplication of the spirit of the law. For instance, the last uproar was when a well-known Irish pub here got busted for having posters in english on their walls. They were antique Guinness advertisements and a part of the environment (Irish bar, right). That was just stupid, but you can only imagine the kind of person who gets a job being a bylaw officer for the office de la langue française. Like any other bylaw officer, usually more motivated by ego and need for authority than an actual concern for the issue itself.