For some eight years – from 1993 to 2001 – I was the lone Jewish employee of the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services Montreal regional authority. One of my colleagues was born in Vietnam. Another was born in Romania. I was born in the States. To the best of my recollection, the other 300-odd staff members were all old-stock francophone Quebecers. All of them.
In those years as a public employee, my impartiality was never questioned, nor did I ever have cause to suspect bias amongst a single one of my colleagues. The organizational culture of fairness and objectivity would have quickly rendered anyone carrying such bias persona non grata. Rather, my difference – and the insight that it brought – was treated with respect and appreciation for the qualitative value it contributed to the collective task of the organization.
I went to work for the Government of Quebec knowing that, at least socially, I would be somewhat isolated. I hoped that I would be accepted for my professional skills; that my colleagues would be patient as my already-fluent French improved; that eventually I would be able to feel comfortable at the cafeteria lunch table. A lifelong policy wonk, I wanted to know how bureaucracy worked, how it interacted with government and community, and where its levers and gears were located. And I wanted to know with absolute certainty that there was no job in Quebec for which I was unqualified only because my mother tongue was not French.
What I found during those years was so much more than I could possibly have imagined. I had the joy of working with consummate professionals who were devoted to their work, who were open to and interested in my background and traditions even if they sometimes failed to fully grasp nuances that, from my perspective, should have been obvious. One colleague was utterly shocked to learn that my kids didn’t celebrate Christmas. What, she asked with alarm, did we tell them about Santa Claus?
Our offices were housed in an old convent that had originally served as a residence for deaf-mutes. The building had long, wide corridors, high windows and even higher ceilings, and a beautiful chapel. The religious order that had donated the building had, I was told, done so with the proviso that the chapel continue to hold weekly sign-language mass. It was a beautiful architectural and historical detail, and I took a genuine, if somewhat perverse, pleasure in sharing it with visitors who had a few minutes to spare.
Nobody imagined for a moment that the presence of that chapel, or of a crucifix in the office of a senior staff member who was personally faithful, made the building’s occupants – either personally or institutionally – Catholic. As a strongly identified Jew sensitive to such matters, I certainly never felt any sense of religious coercion as a result.
My professional responsibilities included supporting the adaptation of health and social services to the needs of Montreal’s many linguistic and cultural minorities. One episode in particular remains with me. A hospital administrator called my office in a state of agitation. There was a large and growing group of angry Muslim men gathering in his hospital lobby following the death of a respected communal leader. The men were demanding that the hospital release the body; the hospital needed to follow proper procedure and could not yet do so. Tempers were running extremely high, and the hospital was on the point of calling the police.
I didn’t know a great deal about Islamic rules about death and dying, but I knew a little about Jewish rules. And so, on a hunch, I suggested that the hospital administrator offer to have a member of the group sit with the body of the deceased until arrangements could be made. The offer was accepted and the crisis defused.
I remember, too, a senior staff retreat held at a facility run by Catholic nuns. Upon hearing my name and surmising I was Jewish, the Mother Superior quietly called me aside and let me know that, while the planned lunch included a pork roast, she would ask that a special order of fish be prepared for me.
Such stories would today perhaps be swept up in the catch-all of what we have come to call unreasonable accommodation. But that rubric unfairly obscures the many, many episodes of sensitivity, kindness and consideration that I experienced first-hand during my time in the Quebec public service.
My civic identity as a Quebecer was formed in the halls, offices, and meeting rooms of that building. It was nourished by the openness and friendship of those with whom I worked. Whatever the outcome of the current proposed legislation, the debate over “Quebec values” has, at least for now, changed the climate in which Quebecers of diverse religious backgrounds navigate our evolving, shared identity. And, while the robust rejection of the proposed charter by a significant portion of Quebec society is encouraging, the debate itself has re-awakened a sense of “otherness” that I believed I had permanently shed during my years with the Quebec public service.
I can only hope that the many open-spirited public servants, like those with whom I worked for those eight years, are undeterred in their commitment to ensuring full access and participation by all their fellow-Quebecers. I can only hope – and, perhaps, even (dare I say?) pray – that the challenges of the current debate will give way to a renewed affirmation by Quebec’s leadership that faith and religious observance should never be barriers to full and equal participation in the life of our society by every Quebecer. All of us.