Chris Selley: In Quebec, laïcité’s endless contradictions may be coming home to roost

Thanks to Premier Legault:

Quebec’s adventures in state secularism — laïcité — have always been full of contradictions, hypocrisies and flimsy explanations. Thankfully, if belatedly, in recent days, those have been coming to a head over two main issues: The role of the Catholic church as part of Quebec’s history and heritage — its patrimoine — and the provision of rooms in public schools for students (read: Muslim students) to pray.

Education Minister Bernard Drainville banned schools from providing prayer spaces the week before last, deeming them incompatible with laïcité. The National Assembly passed one of its famous unanimous motions: “The putting in place of prayer areas, regardless of confession, in public school rooms goes against the principle of secularism.”

But then came Easter, when  leading-light nationalist columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté took to the pages of Le Journal de Montréal with a surprising defence of the Catholic church. Catholicism provided “particular impetus” and “poetic breath” to the French adventure in North America, he argued, and a sense of “solidarity” that began under British oppression and remains to this day.

Premier François Legault tweeted out the column, quoting the bit about solidarity. It did not go well. A few hours later, digging out from an avalanche of negative responses both online and off, Legault added: “We must distinguish between laïcité and our heritage.” And that didn’t go well either — which is interesting, because until recently that was an entirely mainstream position.

In 2008, the National Assembly unanimously (of course) affirmed Quebecers’ “attachment to our religious and historic heritage represented by the crucifix” — i.e., the crucifix hanging over the Speaker’s chair in the legislature. “The crucifix is about 350 years of history in Quebec that none of us are ever going to erase,” then-premier Jean Charest averred. (Minor clarification: Then-premier Maurice Duplessis had the crucifix installed in 1936. According to University of Montreal historian Jacques Rouillard, Duplessis “wanted to distinguish himself from previous Liberal governments by showing he would be more receptive to Catholic principles.”) Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard left office in 2018 still defending said crucifix, and he defended crucifixes in hospitals as well. “To be open and tolerant, that doesn’t mean we have to erase our history,” he argued.

Legault seems to be getting far more pushback than his predecessors did. Liberal education critic Marwah Rizqy accused him of violating his duty of neutrality “as premier of all Quebecers in our secular state.” Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji accused the premier of a “lack of judgment.” Other provincial and federal Liberals and New Democrats chimed in disapprovingly, along with businessman Mitch Garber and comedian Sugar Sammy.

Some of Bock-Côté’s colleagues at Le Journal weren’t much impressed either. “If the Church allowed the French-Canadian people to survive in America, this influence was also unhealthy,” wrote staunch secularist Elsie Lefebvre. This went for women and homosexuals in particular, she argued, but also for the whole population, which was deliberately kept poorly educated and backward.

“Far from cultivating solidarity, the Church favored charity for the deserving poor, that is, for people who complied with its precepts,” Réjean Parent argued. “It has not contributed to our evolution; on the contrary, it has delayed it.”

In a very interesting column, Philippe Léger argued that Legault revealed himself as simply not very interested in laïcité. Indeed, Legault hasn’t worked very hard to hide that, often framing Bill 21 — the restrictions on public servants’ religious attire — as a sort of social consensus under which Quebec could draw a line and move on. (Lotsa luck!)

Léger made a critical observation, as well: Younger Quebecers, few of them religious but none having lived under the Pope’s thumb, are far more likely to see all these contradictions as simply irreconcilable, just as many in the Rest of Canada do now. They (and we) are asked to believe a ban on religious symbols in the public service was an inevitable offshoot of the Quiet Revolution, but one whose necessity only became clear half a century later —mysteriously enough, at a time of increased Muslim immigration. They (and we) can’t help but see “the inconsistency of prohibiting a prayer room for Muslim students during the week, and celebrating … Catholic heritage on weekends,” as Léger put it.

Indeed, the prayer-room issue is a great litmus test for exactly what people mean by secularism: Is it a matter of the government privileging certain ways of life over others, or a matter of the government simply recusing itself from matters of religion?

There was controversy here in Toronto a few years ago when a public middle school essentially brought congregational Muslim prayers in-house on Fridays, for the dubious sake of convenience. I felt it was an unnecessary and unfortunate mash-up of an important secular place with organized religion — whereas allowing students room to pray individually and privately strikes me as a simple matter of hands-off personal liberty. Drainville arrived at the peculiar position that silent prayer in public schools where others can see you is OK, but not quiet prayer in a dedicated room.

That’s a very difficult position to defend, and in the past, Drainville and Legault might not have had to bother. Unanimous vote in the National Assembly aside, there has been healthy and fearless pushback against the prayer-room decision as well. It almost seems like Legault’s government might accidentally have triggered the honest secularism debate Quebec so desperately needs, and which Legault so hoped to avoid. It’s excellent news, if true.

Source: Chris Selley: In Quebec, laïcité’s endless contradictions may be coming home to roost

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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