The Troubling History Behind Quebec’s New Law to Ban Kippahs
Quebec’s new government has created a firestorm by proposing a new law outlawing the wearing of religious head coverings by public servants. The rationale is laïcité — the word for France’s long tradition of secularism, which was reinforced by the backlash against religious bigotry following the Dreyfus Affair, and that was used to recently outlaw burqas, partly due to security concerns after criminals, covered from head to foot and presumed to be Muslim women, were caught robbing banks.
In Quebec, there is no long tradition of secularism, especially among conservative nationalist parties like the new ruling Coalition Avenir Quebec. The hypocrisy involved was underscored when Quebec’s Premier François Legault initially opposed removing the cross hanging in Quebec’s legislative chamber, until he changed his position in order to win additional support for banning religious head coverings. Montreal’s current mayor, Valérie Plante, whose city is increasingly multi-cultural, opposes the law.
Quebec has a long history of animosity to immigrants and minorities, especially Jews. The current law, in fact, reworks a more extreme measure that backfired in 2014 against the Parti Québécois (PQ).
Created after World War II, the PQ’s roots go back to the 1930s and its ideological godfather Canon Lionel Groulx, a clerical fascist, who was Quebec’s equivalent of America’s Father Coughlin. First inspired by France’s Charles Maurras, Groulx modeled his blueprint for an independent Quebec on fascist regimes from Portugal’s Salazar and Spain’s Franco to Mussolini and Hitler. Groulx’s mouthpiece, Le Devoir, was a French Canadian version of Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer. It advocated ending all Jewish immigration to Canada, stripping Jews of Canadian voting rights, and deporting them, involuntarily if necessary, to Palestine.
Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, a right-wing nationalist, whom Montreal-born Mordecai Richler called a “political thug,” rallied his supporters during World War II by warning that international Jewish bankers were planning to deluge Quebec with 100,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler. Soon after it came to power in 1976, the PQ unveiled a public statue to Duplessis. When Groulx died in 1967, Quebec politicians of all persuasions lauded him.
After World War II, as Esther Delisle demonstrated, Quebec nationalists pulled strings in Canada and in France to launch their own “rat line” to give former Vichy officials responsible for murdering Jews and resistance fighters priority passage to Canada at a time when wounded Canadian soldiers had a tough time booking trans-Atlantic passage, and Jewish Displaced Persons were turned away by the Ottawa government.
Historian Delisle, for her candid scholarship about the roots of Quebec nationalism, was discriminated against and initially denied her PhD by Laval University. Quebec politicians tried to ban Mordecai Richler’s book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! and even have him jailed. Montreal recently made partial amends by naming a neighborhood library after Richler. But Delisle is still despised in a city where a metro station and a college bear Groulx’s name.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).