Not “Secular” in Quebec, but SecularIST

The Parti Québecois’s now-notorious “Values Charter” has received its proper share of ignominy, albeit rather belatedly. The thing was a travesty of justice from the start—as, to his credit, Justin Trudeau was acute and bold enough to say right away. (Not so much the ever-cautious Mr. Mulcair, nor the ever-calculating Prime Minister.)

There is sometimes a fine line between nationalism and racism, and the Parti Quebecois has crossed it—again. So often their understanding of Quebecois society has been a pure laine one: “Justice,” for them, so very often means “just us.”

For what no one has heard yet from the PQ is what we always need to hear when legislation is proposed: Why does it matter in this case? What is the problem to which this is the solution?

I haven’t heard of Quebec being engulfed in flames of religious rioting, have you? I haven’t even read of accident victims being treated by Christian EMTs, only to be smacked in the face by large, dangling crucifixes. I haven’t heard of Jewish motorcycle cops having trouble pulling their helmets on over their elaborate kippas, nor of kids in daycare being terrified by the masked Muslim women looming over them.

Let’s be clear about the basic issues. Of course “official neutrality” toward all religions and ideologies (save those that are positively seditious) is right for the state, and for the conduct of its business by its employees. What’s wrong is for “neutrality” of principle and practice to be extended into neutrality of the person. What’s wrong is the insistence that when you represent the state, you cease being yourself, and particularly you cease to wear symbols of your fundamental (religious ) commitment.

Most ominously, this charter could be an exercise in a kind of negative idolatry: only the ideology of secularism can be imaged in the public sector by representatives of the state. No other loyalty, and hence no other identity, can be manifest. This is the secularism of the hardened anti-Christianity on the sharpest edge of the Quiet Revolution.

Less ominously, but cynically, the proposed law is an exercise in divisive politics, a way to drive a wedge between the PQ and its Liberal and Conservative rivals by blowing on the coals of Quebecois’ tradition of embattled resentment. “See?” the PQ wants to say, “we represent the real nation of Quebec. The values ‘we’ share are the values that we descendants of the French colonists share. All those autres that we have had to put up with will be put in their place. We’ve done it linguistically; now we’ll do it graphically.”

It is truly an astonishingly atavistic and revanchist policy, particularly coming from the region of the country with some of Canada’s best thinkers (Charles Taylor comes immediately to mind) regarding questions of religion and society.

Let’s hope that the practical goodwill of Confederation prevails, the spirit of Cartier and not the spectre of Lévesque. Indeed, young Mr. Trudeau has made his late father smile, and here’s hoping the rest of Quebec comes soon to its senses.



10 Responses to “Not “Secular” in Quebec, but SecularIST”

  1. Travis

    Well said John. I like how you draw the distinction between the neutrality of the state and the neutrality of the person. I wonder how Quebec would handle a public service employee who had a non-removable religious symbol like say a tattoo of a cross…?

  2. Glenn

    I never imagined I would be living in a province where secular fundamentalism would move from an ideology that we debate in the classroom to a proposed law and perhaps to official regulation. But the move is on….for now.

    For reasons that are particularly subversive, “Christendom” will be protected in the five principles of PQ doctrine (the crucifix in the national Assembly, the cross on Mont Royal and Christmas trees according to the official document) but not “ostentatious” symbols. (So now I can continue to wear my wedding band that has the Greek symbols of Alpha and Omega engraved into it but I might need to discard my Huguenot cross when I give my lectures at the two public universities where I teach. However, McGill and Laval might need to ask for the opting out clause renewing it every five years.) However, in solidarity with my colleagues who are of other religious traditions perhaps I should adorn a kippa or a turban.
    If this sounds somewhat complicated or a lot like Germany under National Socialism – let the parallels be made. I am making them, which makes me rather pleased that Barth and Bonheoffer have informed much of my missiology over the past decade.
    But before we give too much credit to young Monsieur Trudeau, I would point out that René Levesque would never have tolerated this. His writings are quite clear. He fought even having the party name itself the “Parti-Québecois”. The real credit needs to go to the free press (newspapers like La Presse) that are leading the charge. In actual fact, the Liberal Party of Québec has been surprising lucid on the subject. Thank God for Charles Taylor and Gérald Bouchard. They are speaking out.

  3. Glenn

    John….good to hear you on Radio-Canada at 18h tonight. Good comments on the issue. They translated you well.

    • John

      Thanks, Glenn–and thanks for your helpful, well-informed comments above.

  4. John Bowen

    At the risk of being seen as unCanadian . . . maybe there is this to be said on the other side.

    General Canadian tolerance of “religion” is largely because it is seen as “mostly harmless”: a matter of strange private rituals and odd articles of clothing, neither of which disturb us very much, incomprehensible though they are to “normal” (i.e. non-religious) Canadians. In that respect, religion is the equivalent of any other leisure-time activity: I don’t care what you do in your spare time as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. How can anyone possibly legislate against it? This is classic western liberalism, and it’s actually pretty patronising to”religion”, not to mention based on a profound misunderstanding of Christianity at least (I can’t comment on other faiths).

    The reason Christians were (and are) persecuted is not because they wore crucifixes that were larger than regulation size, but because their faith was (rightly) understood as a threat to the status quo–whether refusing emperor-worship, refusing to fight the state’s wars, caring for untouchables, or opposing consumerism as the basis of the economy (to take wildly random examples).

    Is it possible Quebec understands the nature of “religion” better than the ROC? What am I missing here?

    • John

      I did indicate, John, that part of the resistance to religious symbols might, indeed, be a kind of “negative idolatry”: the symbol of secularism would be “no symbol at all,” and this legislation might well be advocated by some in order to further that cause. I hear Glenn Smith’s observations above regarding the Nazis as consonant with the point you and I are making in this regard as well.

      So the secularists see religion as an opponent worth fighting, per your second substantive paragraph. But I don’t believe they speak for “Quebec” tout court (per your last line), nor do I see such an attitude as consonant with the Canadian tradition going back to Confederation of accommodating each other’s deep religious differences as we partner together to form a community.

      So you may in fact be unCanadian…and, worse, from your English point of view, positively French in your outlook! ; )

  5. John Bowen

    The Welsh have always shared some fellow-feeling with the Quebecois!

    • John

      I DO beg your pardon, Brother Bowen. I had no idea you were blessed with Welsh descent: your accent is not what I am used to associating with the western shore!

  6. Glenn

    John….I am glad you are bowing in on this subject.

    A week has hardly gone by since the Minister shared his five principles and “the cat is out of the bag.” “Creeping islamization in Montréal must be stopped,” he stated in an interview today.

    Kicking Maria Mourani our of BQ caucas has set the presses on fire in the past 36 hours. She dared to call the whole thing “the rise of ethnic nationalism.”

    So in one sense, this part of Québec does not understand the nature of “religion” better than the ROC. It is acting like national socialism.

    But in your substantive paragraph you are right on in my opinion. When the social imaginary reduces religion (for example) to the trappings of “Christendom” (which this charter wants to protect for some crazy reason), it shows that it does not know how to deal with other imaginaries which understand symbols and life differently. It thinks once cannot take them off in certain vocations (defined by the powerful) and put them on when those in power are not around.

    This might be why those of us who are followers of Jesus and have nothing invested in wearing visible symbols (ostentatious is the word we use in French!), might want to wear them in solidarity with people of other traditions who do insist on wearing them.

    I trust that you noticed that Maria Morani was wearing her cross quite visibily today as she spoke to the press. It was quite ostentatious!


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