Sep 7, 2012

The Barbarian Invasions

Two very contrasting events took place on last Tuesday in Montreal. Or completely opposed, if we follow the Athenian vision of the world contrasting the speech at the polis against the violence of the Barbarians: an electoral celebration and a shooting. Pauline Marois will become the Prime Minister of Quebec after her Quebecker Party (Parti Québécois, PQ) won the necessary seats in Parliament to form a minority government. She will be the first female PM of Quebec, and her tenure will mark the return to power of the PQ since 2003, when they lost to the Quebec Liberal Party (Parti Libéral du Québec). While Ms. Marois was giving her victory speech shots were fired at the same venue (videos suggest they were unheard by the attendants or Ms. Marois herself, who was abruptly taken off-stage by her security staff), resulting in one dead and two injured. Allegedly, the attacker yelled in an English-accent French: “The English are waking up!”

Unfortunately, violence in Quebec politics is not new, especially in relation to key elements of the PQ: the defense of the province’s francophone identity and two previous attempts (in 1980 and 1995) to bring about provincial independence from Canada through referenda. During the 1970 episode known as the October Crisis, the radical separatist group Quebec Liberation Front (Front de Libération du Québec, FLQ) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal, James Richard Cross, and days later the Quebec Minister of Labor, Pierre Laporte. In their manifesto, the FLQ called Quebeckers to rise against the “clique of voracious sharks […] who have made Quebec their hunting preserve for ‘cheap labor’ and unscrupulous exploitation”. Canadian PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau suspended civil liberties when people rallied in Montreal to show support to the FLQ and the initial negotiations between the provincial government and the radical group led nowhere. In the end, a document from the FLQ guided the police to a car with M. Laporte’s body inside. M. Cross was liberated, hundreds of people were arrested for showing support to the FLQ and the direct participants received varying prison sentences for kidnapping and murder.

As of today, the “little unfortunate incident”, as Ms. Marois called the shooting (as can be inferred from the videos, neither she, her political staff or the attendants to the rally knew exactly what had happened), has not reached the immediate scope of the October Crisis. One element that could contribute to the control of this episode was the vagueness of the shooter’s statement. Over the last 40 years, English-speaking Quebeckers have had some preoccupation about their minority and quasi-segregation status if Quebec became an independent country and life worked in French (Canadian national laws provide all federal-offered public services to be always available in French and English). In her victory speech, the newly elected PM mentioned her and the PQ’s intentions to try another referendum on the independence of the province, and assured the Anglophones in Quebec that their rights would not be affected in any way.

In spite of being an exceptional event, the October Crisis did not have long-term direct political consequences. Books on Canadian and Quebec history refer to it when talking about a radical but failed attempt to advance the cause of the province’s sovereignty or to highlight the uniqueness of the temporary suspension of the civil liberties and the deployment of armed security forces in Montreal. In an extrapolation exercise, it can be said that the shooting at Ms. Marois’ speech could reach a footnote in historical works.
However, there is an element that should not be neglected: the use of violence for political purposes. Indeed, the incident this week at Montreal must be nuanced: the attacker has not yet been linked to any organization, nor further declarations have been made public about his past or future goals. As well, it is very clear that all attempts in Canada to act violently in the public realm have been less than futile. It is very easy, on the other hand, to argue mental problems when trying to explain this man’s behavior and, not without reason, that the attack can be considered isolated. But that is the problem with barbarians: little by little, through a long period of time, they substantially contributed to end with Athenian splendor and with the might of Rome. By no means do I even suggest that the violent situations I have mentioned are the first step towards a future major crisis in Canada. Nevertheless, if violence is related to a same political issue twice, even with more than forty years in between, a call for prudence must be made on all parts.



  • Pablo, what then do you make of Mexico?

  • Well, as drug related violence in Mexico reached a peak some 15 months ago I made myself the same question. The kind of violence in Mexico might be also thought of in political terms, and indeed is “barbarian” (and barbaric). Such a large number of assasinations or tortures can be understood as a replacement of state institutions (due process of law, resource extraction from the inhabitants of a region, surveillance of a territory, etc) with the practices of criminal organizations. If someone does not comply with the mafia law, instead of undergoing criminal prosecution, he or she will almost certainly be executed. In this case, the call for moderation would also reach the government, especially in the sense to design more adaptable security policies, given the very dynamic environment in which they are implemented.

    It remains an interesting question, though, to find points of similtude and contrasst between the Canadian violent episode I talked about and the Mexican case.

  • There don’t appear to be any similarities between these two cases on the surface, but perhaps I am missing something.

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