Tuesday, December 11, 2007

There are no neutrals there

I'm still scratching my head over this one. Let me declare interest, first: I'm a former union activist and elected leader, and my commitment didn't stop when I stepped down. I'm stickin' to the union, sisters and brothers, till the day I die. But even in the toils of the union machine, I kept my critical stance well fed and watered.

And maybe
that's just as well. Because this union initiative in Quebec needs to be boiled in oil: it's so staggeringly misplaced, foolish and offensive that it's taken all morning (and a nudge from Sketchy Thoughts) for the penny to drop. And like my fellow blogger, it's the word "neutral" that has me on the ceiling, reaching down to type this. Have we learned nothing, absolutely nothing at all, from our own union history?

There's no such thing as "neutral"--never has been, never will be. "Neutral" is a fake, it's a fabrication of the smug, it's taking sides by stealth, and the side that's taken is always the side of those with the most power.

Quebec union centrals bloody well know it, too. They've been around the block quite a few times, in fact probably too often. Cynicism and pandering have replaced the spirit of working people's solidarity that long ago--and it seems like aeons now--was summed up in the simple slogan, An Injury to One is an Injury to All. Not, it seems, if you wear a khimār (hijab) or, for that matter, a yarmulke or a turban. Nor a cross, a defender of the proposed "Charter of Secularism" might retort. But the thing about lay Christians in Canada is that they don't wear obvious religious garb. And their crosses, if they wear them, tend to be so unobtrusive that one doesn't for the most part even notice them. This isn't about Christians, folks. This is about les autres.

Yes, one might look to France, with its militant secular traditions that go all the way back to the French Revolution. And this is clearly a thread in the debates that must have taken place before the unions appeared in front of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation. But another thread--in fact, a greasy, knotted rope--is rank-and-file hérouxvillisme. There's quite the backlash going on in the land of the Quiet Revolution, fuelled to some degree by patently unreasonable requests for accommodation, but motivated in very large part by a seemingly ineradicable pure laine racism and ethnocentrism.

This call for secularism, after all, didn't just erupt out of the blue. It's part of a many-faceted debate about culture that makes the latter a venerated object instead of a set of ever-changing practices performed by people as they interact with each other and with the world. Remember the great tablespoon incident? The Kirpan Kontroversy? More sites of struggle in the culture wars. And for what?

Just as there are unreasonable demands for accommodation, there is unreasonable unwillingness to accommodate. And what "accommodation," after all, does it take to allow a little kid to eat his meal undisturbed in a school cafeteria, or another older kid to carry a tiny, ceremonial piece of metal securely sewn into his clothing? Or a teacher to wear a headscarf? Or a yarmulke? Or a turban? Are pure laine lifeways so endangered that rules must be made to prevent les autres from wearing a hat? Are they so fragile that unions, whose fundamental duty it is to fight for the rights of their members, are willing to betray their members' very livelihoods, solely on the basis of what they choose to wear? Is this what we've come to, after a hundred and fifty years of labour history, much of which consisted of life-and-death struggles for human rights?

There is a debate to be had about secularism--a good debate. I have long opposed separate school systems. I believe Ontario did the right thing by removing religion from arbitration processes. There can be real, harmful consequences flowing from the inappropriate injection of religion into education and the judicial system. But what consequences can there possibly be from an article of clothing that tells us simply what the wearer believes?

And now the unions have piled on. The unions. Solidarity forever, but only for the bare-headed. I'd be tempted to laugh if it weren't so all-fired sickening and disgraceful. If I were a union member in Quebec who happens to wear a religious article of clothing, I'd feel utterly devastated today. Come on, mes chers confrères et consoeurs. Give your own heads a good shake, and try not to rattle.

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