Pitch darkness on the campground in Orono, but for the firelight. Silence, except the lapping of the waves—and the occasional splash of a long-serving Ontario PC Party vice president who’d gotten rip-roaring drunk and fallen into the water.
Across the firepit from me sat Vincent, one of those Quebecois public intellectual thinkfluencers who establish a name for themselves before they’re out of university. As another faceless Anglo who let my deeds speak for me, this seemed like another unbridgeable solitude. I thought that his mother, back in Quebec City, must be shepping quite a bit of nachas from young Vincent, or whatever the equivalent Quebec idiom might be.
As it happened, Vincent had further distinguished himself through his command of the English language. And since this was the Liberty Summer Seminar, which promoted itself as a forum for free speech, I asked Vincent if he would be so kind as to explain why the Quebec government was so preoccupied with the language and dressing habits of my people, and other, not so pure laine inhabitants of the province. What threat could we constitute to their overwhelming demographic majority?
And I grew slowly more astounded as Vincent explained that for many in his part of the world, the idea of the Jews of Quebec as a minority didn’t exactly compute. For them, the Jews were just another part of the majority—the Anglo-Canadian majority. They didn’t adopt French customs, promote Québécois authors and artists, and seemed downright resentful at the notion of being asked to do so. They weren’t being oppressed by the Quebec government—they were in league with the oppressors of the Québécois nation.
What followed was an exchange of stories we’d been told about “the other”—Jews packing up and moving west in the 1970s after the rise of the Parti Québécois, his forefathers stealing electricity from Anglo-dominated power companies. Eventually we got too hammered to continue, but that night, the riddle wrapped inside the mystery inside the enigma briefly untangled itself—if only for a moment.
As Jews, we often think we have a monopoly on suffering. Sometimes, it’s exaggerated for effect. Other times, it’s used, by some Jews, to justify terrible acts and xenophobic statements. Still other times, it’s the basis for shrewd lobbying, powerful solidarity, and world-changing cultural exploits.
Similarly, the nation of Quebec sees itself as being under attack, and that it must do what it must to survive. We deplore Bill 21, but to them, it should be no more controversial than, say, a bill to preserve the status of Yiddish.
Ludicrous, to our ears? Perhaps. But the truth is not always pleasant, and rarely fits with what we’ve been led to believe.
In this way we can understand the mercurial Quebec political culture—the wild vote swings, the personal attacks, the corruption and vote buying (which, as they are quick to remind us, is no worse than whatever’s going on in the other provinces—or our own communities).
Which party will best defend Quebec and its interests? That’s the most important question. And, as it happens, not so different of a question from “Is [insert party here] good for the Jews?”
Thinking about my well-intentioned question today, I can imagine how it must’ve sounded to Vincent’s ears. The same way a non-Jew’s question of “Why are the Jews so afraid of antisemitism—aren’t they wealthy and powerful enough to defend themselves?” would’ve sounded to me. But we moved past it.
And unless we move past the pretense that Quebec voters are alien beings that cannot be understood, the divisions will only deepen.
Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.
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