Increasing State Control of Political Space in Quebec

– Christine Dandenault –

The use of a spurious definition of what constitutes "hate" as an instrument of state control in the public and political space in Quebec is a matter of great concern. This is not a new issue. An infamous case took place in 2015, when the Couillard Liberal government at that time drew up a plan of action to combat radicalization leading to violence in justifying increasing police powers. Entitled Radicalizaton in Quebec: Act, Prevent, Detect and Live Together, the measures, among other things, resulted in heavy police presence in certain CEGEPs with large Arab populations. They called for "whistleblowers" to report members of the polity to the police if they considered them to be non-moderate or suspicious. They legitimated unfounded allegations of hate speech and incitement to violence.  One day, four Muslim students who the state declared were "radicalized youth going to join ISIS" were arrested when they tried to leave the country on holiday. It later turned out that the youth, Shia and Sunni alike, were trying to leave against the wishes of those who did not want Shia and Sunni to mix. Nothing to do with ISIS.  Nothing to do with violent extremism.

Muslims were caught under the umbrella of unfounded declarations that they were going to fight alongside the jihad in Syria. There was media hype about the dangers of young people becoming radicalized, accompanied by an intervention by the Liberal Denis Coderre, Mayor of Montreal at the time, who had worked with the federal government, police forces and the RCMP to set up the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, directly targeting the youth.

In November 2023, the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec (DGEQ) launched a consultation on the modernization of Quebec's Election Act, based on a document entitled For a New Vision of the Quebec Election Act. The document takes up the proposals of Canada's Liberal government, and the governments of the U.S., UK, France and other European countries, concerning the banning of "entities that incite hatred or violence." It seeks to take up these proposals from the angle of "ensuring that the Elections Act reflects the values of our society."

The document notes that while "misinformation, intimidation, harassment and threats have increased" in Canada and Quebec, "reports of hate speech and hate crimes have increased in significant ways since 2017." It warns that "the more these kinds of comments and acts take shape in the public space, the more likely they are to be reflected in the political environment." "Hate," reads the consultation document, "marginalizes, excludes and dehumanizes."

The DGEQ goes on to say that the privileges that come with the authorization of a political party "should not be used to amplify hate speech." He proposes the addition of criteria related to a party's name, objectives, speech and activities that could lead to the withdrawal of their authorization. He cites examples of laws in Europe that allow the banning and dissolution of a political party on this basis.

Banning a political party on the grounds of incitement to hatred or violence, or because it is considered extremist, is a big deal in a society that calls itself democratic. Once this door is opened, freedom of expression, the right of association and the right to conscience come under attack. This is all the more serious when we recognize the importance of the exercise of these rights in the expression of the popular will and creation of public opinion, especially when those who currently have access to power and privilege are prepared to do anything to repel whatever they think threatens their positions.

The problem with all these bans -- applied to individuals and organizations and enforced by police powers – is precisely that they do not look into what is the source of such act, nor take into account who has the power to decide on these matters. Who decides what is hateful, violent and extremist when it comes down to it, and by what definition? Especially when it is done in the name of the "values of Quebec society" that are simply proclaimed as readily defined.

Quebec Premier François Legault regularly indulges in speech that could be described as inciting hatred and violence against immigrants, migrants and refugees. And he does so precisely in the name of what he calls Quebec values. Here is an example, but anyone who follows current events in Quebec knows that this is not an isolated case:

Speaking about the challenges of integrating immigrants, Premier François Legault said: "Quebeckers are peaceful, they don't like bickering, they don't like extremists, they don't like violence, so we have to make sure we keep it the way it is right now," "We do have values, though, and we've talked a lot about laicity in recent years; that's one of the values, as well as respect. There's a way of life here and we want to keep it." (Reported by Radio-Canada on September 7, 2022. TML translation). All of it suggests that Quebec values are civilized and unless measures are taken to protect them, they are threatened by new arrivals.

Codes of good conduct have been established at the National Assembly where a list of words to be avoided there has also been created. The Ethics and Professional Conduct Commissioner has been empowered to oversee the good conduct of members of the legislature, all aimed at protecting "Quebec values." Yet Legault's CAQ government has time and again refused to condemn the government of Israel for the genocide it is committing against the Palestinian people with impunity, and to demand a ceasefire. This is not considered a condoning of the promotion of hate under the current circumstances, nor is his refusal to close the Quebec mission in Israel despite closing the Quebec office in Cuba under the hoax of a lack of funds to maintain it. Nor are the Legault government's constant accusations that public sector workers are causing the crisis in the health care system – which aim to incite the population's opposition to them – considered a form of hate-mongering and incitement for the division of the polity.

By themselves promoting divisions of the polity on every conceivable basis and accusing others of "hate" and "extremism," the government and its fellow travellers seek to divert attention from the fact that they represent a political fringe which takes extremist stands by paying the rich, gutting social programs, privatizing social programs, the civil service, police forces and the like. The ruling elite works tirelessly to divert attention from the population's deepening discontent, distrust and opposition to the party-dominated system called a representative democracy.

Another way of approaching the issue of combating speech that incites hatred and violence is that some say the Internet and social media are "incubators" for this kind of discourse. This comes at a time when it can be demonstrated that the "incubation" process is inseminated by the state, its intelligence agencies and its hired private interests. The DGEQ says that the advent of digital platforms has brought "complex challenges, particularly in terms of the reliability, quality and equality of the information" the electorate receives. He calls for measures to circumscribe freedom of expression on social media but, again, has nothing to say about the private interests behind the problems.

On social media, there is very little accountability. You can use a false name, you can write things you wouldn't say in person and what you say can be construed many different ways because the context and references are not always obvious. This is what happens when governments and cartel parties are permitted to lower the level of political discourse to gutter politics which include the promotion of hate speech and incitement to violence with which they get away with impunity. This is part of the reality that comes with this new technology, this new communication tool that we need to master, and cannot be left out of the equation when discussing measures to be taken against hate speech and violent extremism. The ruling class has created an environment based on anarchy and violence that spews hatred against those it cannot control.

The younger generations are taking concerted action to humanize the natural and social environment to make them fit for human beings and all species of flora, fauna and life itself. Those who have an aim in life are quite capable of separating the wheat from the chaff, educating one another, supporting one another and setting rules which favour the kind of world they are striving to bring into being.

The illusion created is that the problem in the political space is the behaviour of malicious, corrupt individuals in our midst, not the corrupt, self-serving rulers themselves who endorse a political system which preserves their positions of power and privilege. These elites apply the same self-serving logic when it comes to weeding out corruption. During the Charbonneau Commission in Quebec, launched into corruption in the construction industry, it was not the mega corruption companies which were accused of corruption, but some lowly individuals they induced to take bribes on their behalf. The Marxist-Leninist Party wrote at the time: "Today, the problem is that the dominant elite is corrupting all organs of state power by attacking the public authority, leaving only police powers. All this serves private monopoly interests, not the interests of citizens."

This shows that what is required is the politicization of the polity, which makes it possible to resolve these problems in a way that affirms everyone's right of speak and organize. The multiplication of censorship measures is very costly and ultimately leads to the creation of a police state. It is the official discourse which remains the primary source of the incitement of hate speech and violence, not random individuals or their organizations.

So long as the citizens are not at the centre of the solution to the problems that concern them, on the basis of their own experience and that of their collectives and the society as a whole, the problems will increase and the dangers along with them.

This article was published in
Volume 54 Number 23 - March 28, 2024

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