Quick Links

A Reply to Mordecai Richler on Anti-Semitism in Quebec

This article was published in The Montreal Gazette on the op-ed page, on June 4, 2000, and as a letter to the editor of The National Post, Toronto, on June 3, 2000. (The National Post amputated the first para. and last two paras., without permission.)

I enjoy Mordecai Richler's pungent, usually hilarious, weekly comments on the world around us and I especially share his opposition to Quebec separatism. But political commentary is not fiction and when he states facts in his periodic exposés of the Parti Québécois, he must be accurate and fair or his point will be lost and will perhaps have a reverse effect.

His June 3, 2000 spoof, entitled "More Brilliancy from PQ brain trust", is mordantly funny, but as is his occasional practice, Richler mixes in stories of anti-Semitism of 60, 70 or 80 years ago to attack the Parti Québécois of today. In a fictional and comic description of a Parti Québécois Convention on language, he writes: "A daring idea, put forward by one apparatchik, was to schedule Referendum III on Yom Kippur, which would put paid to the Jewish No vote. There was a good deal of enthusiasm for this ploy, until a PQ veteran protested that, considering the vile anti-Semitic past of Quebec nationalism (the Abbé Lionel Groulx, the St. Jean Baptiste Society, and Le Devoir in the '30s and '40s), it might not go down well in the larger world of societies not obviously distinct."

But was not English Quebec just as anti-Semitic, or more so, than French Quebec of the period? During the 20's, 30's and 40's when McGill University had a quota system for Jews, the Université de Montréal received Jewish law students on their merits. An example is Alan Gold, who became Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec and received many other honours from Quebec and Canada.

Even after the Second World War, McGill's Chancellor approved a Jewish quota. And at the same time, the Mayor of Town of Mount Royal advised prospective buyers of properties and homes on the former golf course in the Town that there was a quota system for Jews. On the other hand, there was a synagogue in French Canadian Outremont.

At the McGill Convocation last week, which justifiably honoured Mr. Richler as an author of international repute, he mentioned the restrictions on Jews at McGill in the past and joked about his marks not having been high enough, even if he had not been Jewish. But those comments were for local consumption. When Richler writes his syndicated weekly column or wrote his two famous articles in the New Yorker and his much-cited book "Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!", he passes lightly over English Quebec anti-semitism. Only his comments on French Quebec's past anti-semitism are acerbic and thorough.

And is French Quebec anti-Semitic today? Let's be fair. Few if any jurisdictions in the world other than Quebec provide government funding for private religious schools, including Armenian, Muslim and Jewish schools. This has immeasurably aided in attracting approximately 20,000 Sephardic Jews into Quebec in the last thirty years.

[Mordecai Richler's writings can on occasion be unfair, very insulting to French Canadians and only help the "Yes" vote, just as Jacques Parizeau and hard-liner Parti Québécois comments sometimes only increase the " No" vote.]

[The battle lines are drawn for the next Referendum. Most Anglophones and Allophones have made their decision long ago as to how they will vote, as have the hard liners of the PQ on the other side. It is the middle to whom serious arguments and writings should be addressed. In any case all of us should act with understanding, fairness and respect.]


William Tetley QC Professor