Ban the niqab, keep the cross? | National Post

Good long read by Graeme Hamilton:

Until last summer, the Cyclorama of Jerusalem in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que., was largely unloved. Visitors to the massive 360-degree panoramic depiction of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s crucifixion were growing scarce, and those who paid the $12 admission often left disappointed.

“It was just bizarre and I would not recommend,” one critic wrote on Trip Advisor last year. “This painting is from another era when pilgrims flocked from all over and were believers, which is not the case these days,” another wrote in August. Compared to the soaring Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica next door, the Cyclorama was a kitschy eyesore.

But then something strange happened. News broke at the beginning of August that the Cyclorama was up for sale and that the owners were looking for a foreign buyer to pack up the crucifixion panorama and move it elsewhere. Instead of a shrug, the news was met with instant mobilization. A group of academics called on the province to buy the Cyclorama before it was lost, and the minister of culture declared it a “heritage jewel.” Attendance jumped. And two weeks after the first news reports of the sale, the government announced that the attraction built in the late 19th-century would be protected as an official heritage site. The government is now in discussions with the owners about providing financial aid for upgrades to the building.

The swift intervention to save a religiously themed tourist attraction seems odd for a province that prides itself on its secularism — or laïcité in French. Indeed, the drive to limit the place of religion in the public sphere is shaping up to be a central issue in next year’s election. The Liberal government of Philippe Couillard passed its religious neutrality act, Bill 62, in October preventing women who wear the niqab or burka from providing or receiving government services, and the opposition Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec have promised even stricter legislation if elected.

The Cyclorama of Jerusalem outside Quebec City. (

But there are frequent reminders that secularism in Quebec comes with an asterisk. Typically, the religions that need to be restricted are those of minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Jews. More often than not they are practiced by relative newcomers to Quebec. And despite the conventional wisdom that Quebecers broke free from the yoke of the Catholic Church in the Quiet Revolution, a stubborn attachment to Christian symbols remains, leading critics to label Quebec’s secularism “catho-laïcité.”

In the aftermath of the adoption of Bill 62, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of the left-wing Québec Solidaire party, saw an opportunity to correct what he saw as a glaring contradiction. The law targeting niqab-wearing Muslims in the name of religious neutrality was adopted in a legislature where a crucifix hangs prominently behind the Speaker’s chair. (A judge last week suspended the application of the niqab ban until another section of the law comes into force.) Citing the need for a “separation of powers between religion and the state,” Nadeau-Dubois called for legislators to debate moving the crucifix out of the legislative chamber, which is known as the Salon Bleu because of its blue walls. His motion went nowhere when the Liberals and CAQ refused to grant the unanimous consent required to debate it. “It’s part of the history of the Salon Bleu,” Liberal member Serge Simard explained to Radio-Canada. “It’s part of the history of Quebec.”

The Quebec flag backdropped by a church near Sacre-Couer-de-Jesus, Que. (Mike Drew/Postmedia)

Haroun Bouazzi is head of Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec. In principle, he says, secularism should be a positive thing for minority religions, protecting freedom of belief while shielding the state from the influence of any one sect. But what he has witnessed in Quebec in recent years is secularism being invoked by politicians and opinion leaders to oppress rather than protect. Seeing Bill 62 adopted under a crucifix was the height of hypocrisy, Bouazzi says. “How can you be so strict about secularism that you want to put people out of a job because they have chosen to believe something, and then vote that specific (law) under a cross?” he asks. “Sadly, secularism seems to be invoked just to take away rights from religious minorities and not for the right things.”

When Bouazzi arrived in Quebec from his native Tunisia in 2000, he absorbed the standard Quebec history of a 1960s rupture with the once powerful church, which led to a commitment to secularism. He now sees that account as a myth. “It’s not true that all Quebecers got rid of religion,” he says.

Solange Lefebvre, a religious studies professor at the Université de Montréal, agrees. “It’s not true that religion has been abandoned. That infuriates me,” she says. “That is the myth of the Quiet Revolution, spread even by academics sometimes.” As the “simplistic” story goes, Quebecers were in darkness until the Quiet Revolution, then they saw the light, were emancipated from religion and fashioned a skilled bureaucracy to perform functions previously controlled by the church. Lefebvre says the actual story is more nuanced because the influence of religion is felt on multiple levels.

“They were emancipated from certain aspects: from a church that played a lot of roles, that had control over health and education services,” she says. “But religious education continued until 2000. Rites of passage were very much in demand. The Catholic Church in Quebec was very dynamic after the 60s — there were bishops who were stars.”

Census data show that while Quebec pews have emptied, a strong attachment to the church remains. The 2011 National Household Survey found that 75 per cent of Quebecers declared a Catholic religious affiliation, and just 12 per cent declared no religious affiliation – the lowest of any region, according to University of Waterloo professor Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. It is British Columbians who are the least religious Canadians, with 44 per cent declaring no religious affiliation.

Reginald Bibby, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge who has long tracked religious trends in Canada, says the identification of francophone Quebecers with Catholicism remains surprisingly high. For example, nearly 90 per cent of adults aged 35 and under who were raised in Catholic homes continue to identify as Catholic. He says many francophone Quebecers have an “à la carte” approach to religion, praying privately and believing they experience God, but rejecting church authority over issues relating to sex, sexual orientation and abortion.

Bibby says the historical importance of the Catholic Church to Quebec-born Catholics is inescapable. Catholicism “is virtually ‘in their bones’ and is not only part of their culture but also part of their personal identities,” he said in email correspondence. “The result is that they feel natural affinity with Catholic symbols, public and otherwise. Any efforts to obliterate those features of their culture is also an assault on identity and can be expected to be met with opposition, sometime vigorous.”

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebecu2019s proposed Values Charter in Montreal on Sept. 14, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Such a response was seen last February when, in the name of state religious neutrality, a Quebec City hospital took down a crucifix hanging by its elevators. The action drew a threat of violence, a scolding from government ministers and a petition signed by more than 13,000 people, egged on by the former politician behind the PQ’s failed Charter of Values. When the hospital returned the crucifix, it drew praise from Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who declared the cross “heritage.”

For Lefebvre, religious symbols like the crucifix have taken on a disproportionate importance. “But we have no choice. It’s loaded with symbolic meaning, in connection with identity. So it is very risky now for political parties, for public personalities, to take a stand against these symbols,” she says. Spencer Boudreau, a retired McGill University education professor and a practicing Catholic, has trouble understanding how the crucifix, hung in the National Assembly in 1936, has survived more than 80 years of tumultuous history. But he sees ample evidence that Quebecers’ attachment to Catholicism persists — from the atheist politician and writer Pierre Bourgault requesting a funeral in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica in 2003 to the Journal de Montréal’s publication last week of a calendar of cultural events to mark Advent. “It’s like your family,” Boudreau says. “There might be things you don’t like in the past, maybe you’ve got this crazy uncle, but that doesn’t mean you reject everything.”

Quebec efforts to grapple with secularism in the past decade have included the 2007-’08 Bouchard-Taylor commission, the 2013 Charter of Values seeking to ban conspicuous religious symbols from the public service and Bill 62, which is already the subject of a constitutional challenge. And still confusion reigns. Municipalities use zoning to restrict new places of worship while largely empty Catholic churches occupy prime estate. Residents of a small town outside Quebec City last summer blocked the opening of a Muslim cemetery on the grounds that a graveyard should be open to all, even though Catholic cemeteries can be just as restrictive.

With no sovereignty referendum on the horizon, secularism is likely to be a key “Quebec identity” issue as the province moves toward an election next October. CAQ leader François Legault, who is currently leading in the polls, has promised a “values test” for immigrants and he has identified the full-body burkini swimsuit as something that runs counter to Quebec values. His party also wants to prohibit people in positions of authority, including judges, police officers and schoolteachers, from wearing religious symbols.

The legislature in Quebec City on Nov. 16, 2017. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Félix Mathieu, a PhD student in Political Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal who co-authored a paper on the PQ Charter of Values, says the push to preserve symbols of Quebec’s Catholic past is led by conservative thinkers who argue that secularization went too far and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. “They have a really flexible tolerance for religious symbols,” he says. “Those of the majority are accepted because they speak to our past; those of minorities — in particular Muslims and Sikhs — are identified as elements that sow division.”

Since the Liberals defeated the PQ in 2014 and the proposed Charter of Values died, the conservatives have been in retreat. But Mathieu says the next election could reverse that.

Quebecers are not alone in resisting minority religious symbols, but polls suggest they are the most opposed. An October poll by the Angus Reid Institute after Jagmeet Singh won the NDP leadership found that 47 per cent of Quebecers would not consider voting for a turban-wearing Sikh, compared with 32 per cent in Alberta, 23 per cent in British Columbia and 24 per cent in Ontario.

A nun outside Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Another Angus Reid poll later that month showed 68 per cent of Quebecers thought niqab-wearing women should be prohibited from visiting government offices, well above the national average of 49 per cent. The same poll found 55 per cent of Quebecers consider Islam to be damaging to Canada and 22 per cent said Judaism is damaging (compared with 11 per cent who said it is benefiting.) Catholicism, on the other hand, was seen as damaging to society by 10 per cent of Quebecers and benefiting by 36 per cent.

Angus Reid, founder of the institute, says the results show that Quebecers’ suspicion of minority religions cannot be explained simply by an embrace of secularism. “When you look at Quebec society, you find a level of intolerance for diversity which is significantly higher than the rest of the country,” he says. “It is seen in spades in the current Islamic debate that’s going on. It’s also seen in the fundamental question of the perception of Judaism.”

It is worth nothing that in 2011 just three percent of Quebecers identified as Muslim, one per cent as Jewish and a fraction of a per cent as Sikh. Lefebvre is optimistic that the more contact Quebecers have with adherents of minority religions, the more open they will become. “It’s familiarity that allows people to get over prejudices,” she says. And she questions whether other Canadians really view minority religions all that differently.

“Canada remains a country that is very inspired by Christianity from a certain point of view,” she says. “To me, the big difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada is that we are very vocal. We say what we are thinking loud and clear.”

via Ban the niqab, keep the cross? | National Post

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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