Editorial: Speak right or be cast out

  • August 24, 2023

In the deep mists of mid-20th century Quebec political mythology there glowered a tribe of hybrid juggernaut-Amazonian English-speaking women popularly known as “Speak White” Eaton’s counter clerks.

Everyone in la belle province of a certain age had an account of being told, or at least could testify that their best friend’s uncle’s second cousin by way of a hushed up marriage to a black sheep defrocked priest had been ordered, while trying to pay for a hat or a pair of culottes at the Toronto-based department store on Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal, to stop speaking French and “Speak White” instead.

White, of course, meant English, which translated as superior, dominant and exclusively publicly permissible.

Whether anyone, ever, on one square inch of Quebec’s 1,667,441 square kilometre landscape, uttered “Speak White” even as a serious jest, never mind to a customer in a major department store in a majority French language city, is a matter, shall we say, of historical uncertainty.

What’s indisputable was the political necessity for a tale told by an injured polity signifying nothing less than its constituents being fed up with economic subordination and social restrictions on their constitutional liberty to speak their own language as and when they chose.

Flash forward many decades and, in the immortal words of The Who, “meet the new boss; same as the old boss.” As our Montreal reporter Anna Farrow writes in this issue of The Register, the new bosses may have ascended to the heady heights of election to the province’s National Assembly. Yet the age-old human desire to suppress and re-order the language and thought of “outsiders” still routinely breaks the surface.

The primal juju of the long-gone Eaton’s counter lady lives on in the likes of Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx, who summarily ripped up a contract and banned a group of Evangelical Christians from renting the Centre des Congrés du Québec last June because they purportedly did not, in a twist on the old mythological phrase, “Speak Right.”

Speak right, in this case, is not a euphemism for political conservatism. It’s what the tourism minister believed Harvest Ministries International wanted to publicly profess to believe, i.e., opposition to abortion. Such a profession of belief, Proulx countered, could not be permitted in the public space of a convention centre in Quebec: “It’s against the fundamental principles of Quebec.”

With that fundamentalist ministerial assertion, the signed contract was shredded, and pressure applied to have the doors of alternative venues throughout the capital slammed shut on Harvest Ministries. Doesn’t seem, to use the old and thankfully discredited parlance, “mighty white” of a tourism minister, now does it? Or maybe, harkening back to that earlier era, it does.

The not-so-niggling problem is that the evangelical group wanted only to profess its faith in God. It had no interest in staging an anti-abortion rally. Cue its lawsuit filed earlier this month for a rather modest seeming $200,000 to cover breach of contract and violation of Charter rights.

Whatever the resolution of that legal wrangle, the episode itself epitomizes our human — or perhaps anti-human — impulse not just to “other” others, in the jargon of today, but to compel them to speak, act, even think like us or be publicly shut out. As Catholics, we are challenged to constant examination of conscience for such a failure of love of neighbour. But we are also given the gift of being able to meet that challenge within a Church that professes a Gospel understanding of what conversion genuinely means.

We can tolerate tolerance, without stumbling into relativism, through our conviction that Creation, and therefore change, rests in God’s hands. We can see the Church as authentically countercultural because its end is neither politics nor language but the Word that speaks to all.

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