Laurent Bastien Corbeil

Young, spoiled, out to steal elections: I must be a McGill student

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

McGill University campus in Montreal. (Ingram Publishing/Getty Images)

Is there anything more frightening than a McGill student? If you’ve been paying attention to the Quebec provincial elections, you’ve probably noticed some of the troubling accusations coming from the Parti Québécois and its allies. Judging from the nastiness of the rhetoric, you’d think McGill students were all in cahoots, part of Ontario’s fifth column in the heart of Quebec.

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It started last week when the Quebec minister of justice, Bertrand Saint-Arnaud, raised the spectre of voter fraud by accusing students from our school of “stealing” the elections. Not to be outdone, Janette Bertrand, a television personality who’s been kowtowing to the premier since the introduction of the charter of values, went off on a rant last weekend when she blamed religious McGill students for monopolizing access to a swimming pool in her building – in a hypothetical scenario, no less.

McGill isn’t even the largest English university in Quebec, yet it’s been subject to a disproportionate amount of hate. Our school’s name has been thrown around to such an extent that McGill has become byword for anything deemed foreign or exotic by Quebec society. We’re responsible for such a large swath of problems that it’s becoming difficult to keep track.

And who cares? After all, we’re only a gang of spoiled children, who, oddly enough, occasionally moonlight as religious fundamentalists. We feel little or no attachment to the province and, in a few years time, we’ll leave Quebec to return to our cozy mansions in Toronto and cheer on the Leafs with our buddy, Don Cherry. Except this isn’t the case.

McGill students aren’t from some faraway land where the whims of every religious extremist are catered to; they’re mainly from Quebec. Admittedly, only 18 per cent cite French as their mother tongue, including yours truly, but this should hardly be cause for alarm. Anglophones and Allophones in this province are Quebeckers too – something that is seldom said.

As a Francophone, I’m more than familiar with our school’s perception in the province – and so is my family. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Quiet Revolution, my grandfather barred his guests from speaking English in his home. When he learned that I had been accepted at McGill, he didn’t believe it. For him, and for a large part of Quebec society, our school is still a symbol of English privilege – a privilege acquired through two hundred years of French and, less stated, indigenous oppression.

There’s still plenty of reasons to criticize the school, but the supposed allegiance of our student body to one state or another isn’t one of them. The issue is, in itself, a distraction. When Ms. Bertrand or Mr. Saint-Arnaud mouth off about McGill students stealing elections or foisting their beliefs on others, they don’t actually mean us – most of us aren’t religious enough. In reality, they’re talking about the people who are already under the crosshairs of the charter of values: newly arrived immigrants and religious minorities.

The word McGill implies foreignness while evoking memories of a Quebec writhing under English rule. It’s thrown around because it’s more palatable, but it’s only a synonym for what some Quebeckers fear the most. If the PQ and its pals are honest, then they should say what they really think without resorting to smokescreens. But with this more truthful version of their message, where anyone who isn’t a Québécois de souche is plainly turned away, the PQ might be surprise to find a less receptive audience.

Laurent Bastien Corbeil is a student at McGill University

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