Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When in Hérouxville...


The town fathers of Hérouxville, Québec, have issued a fatw...er, un avis public, to prospective immigrants, following a perfectly gender-balanced survey of residents that garnered 98 female and 98 male respondents. It's obviously a tolerant and progressive little place, where only two of the respondents defined themselves as "racist" (two others weren't sure), and only four wanted to take away women's right to vote. A larger number (10) did not know that the Québécois were une nation, so Stephen Harper has a little work to do in that respect; but only three were opposed to female police officers arresting male suspects.

This consultation having satisfied the requirements of a democratic town council, the Mayor, one Martin Périgny, fired off letters to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay, to the Secretary of State, Helena Guergis, and to the Immigration Minister, Diane Finley, not to mention a gaggle of Quebec Cabinet ministers as well. His purpose was to announce, based upon his sondage, the town norms, here Babelfished into English for your delectation. Immigrants, he said, would be expected to conform to them. No stoning of women. No clitoredectomies. Mixed swimming pools. The whole nine yards, as they say in Baghdad.

Now, one can understand how those who feel that their culture is under siege can become self-conscious about it, and reify it into texts and images. One thinks of the Maori haka performed in front of legions of pakeha, having lost much of its original significance but having gained a different significance, or the Inuit values of survival now codified as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. Those artefacts, changing their meaning with the times, are created to prevent erasure. But the good burghers of Hérouxville are not the bearers of a threatened culture at all. They represent the dominant culture, in fact, and are engaging in a bit of good old-fashioned triumphalism.

One can see abundant evidence of this in the norms that they are now promulgating, and in the way in which those norms are expressed. As noted in the Montreal Gazette, it's rather like those resolutions passed by little Ontario towns a while back declaring that they were officially English-only--Sault Ste. Marie, for example, St. Mary's Falls, that is (with "Ojibwa Kitche Gumeeng Odena" on the town crest, just to make things really interesting).

The norms are explicitly confrontational, for one thing, the town council wagging a collective finger at people unlikely ever to settle there, caricaturing other cultures, demolishing stereotypical strawmen, gratuitously forbidding behaviour unlikely ever to occur. Those who applaud, like Brigitte Pellerin, ("A small town defends its local customs") or the egregiously stupid writer of the hed in the National Post ("Herouxville wants immigrants that fit in with its citizens") are missing something fundamental: this is not a defence of local culture at all, which is not remotely under threat. It's a cartoonish attack on others. And such attacks resonate, unfortunately, with the ranks of les Québécois pure laine--not that other parts of Canada are by any means immune from that sort of nonsense.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a police officer from Montreal is in a bit of trouble over a cheerfully xenophobic song making its way around the Internet, Ça commence à faire là.

"Si tu n'es pas content de ton sort, il existe un endroit qui est l'aéroport" he sings, to a fairly catchy beat. It turns out that he was particularly exercised by a recent incident where Hasidic Jews demanded that a YWCA frost its windows so as not to tempt young Hasids at an Orthodox synagogue across the street who might chance to see spandex-clad women working out on the premises. And an internal police magazine suggested at about the same time, pouring oil on the flames, that female officers step aside to allow their male colleagues to deal with Hasidic men--getting the police union all upset and causing some puzzlement in the Hasidic community, which had never suggested such a thing.

Of course, the Hasids have been established in Montreal for generations, so that telling them to head to the airport has no doubt earned the tuneful flic a few puzzled looks. But other accomodements have also caused offence recently: men being banned from pre-natal classes because Muslim women were present, for example. A Sikh schoolkid carrying a tiny knife sewn into his clothing. A Filipino child eating with a spoon. If that keeps up, Québec will be just a province comme les autres before you know it. It's a slippery slope, câlisse.

Anyway, his song was soon all the rage, and his bosses found out. "Le policier dans l'eau chaude," says the headline.

Not in Hérouxville, mon chum.

UPDATE: (February 2) A parody has appeared. Some knowledge of la parlure required.
(h/t Marc-Alain Mercier).

UPDATE: (February 10) The Globe & Mail has an excellent editorial on the subject today. "This statement [the avis public] only purports to be about shared values. It is an insult and a provocation...."

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