How the Grinch stole Chanukah: secularism is not a veil for systemic racism

Legitimate observation on timing, whether this was intentional or blindness:

In the same week that an elementary school teacher was removed from her classroom in Quebec for wearing a hijab, the Legault government announced it will loosen the rules for indoor gatherings right in time for Christmas.

I hate to be a Grinch, but in this multi-faith household as we put away the menorah and bring out the Christmas lights, I question when Quebec will stop pretending to be a secular society.

What a coincidence that at this time last year, the CAQ also considered allowing larger gatherings for Christmas, right when holidays from other faiths, such as Chanukah and Diwali, had ended. 

The Legault government preaches about separation between church and state, puts into law Bill 21 preventing public servants (teachers, police, judges, etc.) from wearing religious symbols, and insists that systemic racism is not an issue in Quebec; yet we are expected to believe that loosening of public health measures on Dec. 23 is linked to the state and not the church.

Quebec is not a religiously neutral society; it is a Catholic-based society. Its institutions close for Christmas and Easter; countless streets, towns, hospital, and schools are named after saints; and the crucifix that hung prominently in the national assembly for decades was only recently removed, following much debate and push back. 

Even Bill 21, an act respecting the laicity of state, accommodates those who practice the Catholic faith, since donning a cross around the neck can be concealed, unlike a hijab, turban, or kippah worn on the head.

As this questionable bill impede the lives of marginalized Quebecers, the CAQ government dares, once more, to tempt pandemic fate in the name of Christmas.

Linking new rules for private gatherings to one specific holiday will, of course, never be publicly stated. Instead, it is conveniently suggested that the timing is due to a stabilization in the number of hospitalizations, the fact that the Omicron variant is not circulating widely in the province, that children over five are now being vaccinated. 

This pandemic has brought many issues to light, including the value of critical thinking. Much information is believable when taken at face value, but even evidence-based facts, like statistics, can be misleading when twisted the right way. 

There is no denying that Quebec has done well in its vaccination and public health efforts, but as the world grapples with mutations of a virus that aims to outsmart us, are we to naively believe that this province will be spared because it is Christmas?

Making progress in halting a global pandemic is hardly an excuse for loosening rules, which miraculously coincide with the birth of Jesus. 

If we really want to understand secularism, pay attention to COVID-19, which makes no distinction for any faith in its path of destruction. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus … one multicultural society battling this virus together.

As the candles go out on Chanukah and the Christmas trees light up, let’s be reminded that a secular society caters not to any one faith. Secularism, Mr. Legault, is not a vail for systemic racism.

Susan Mintzberg is a PhD candidate in social work at McGill University. Her research focuses on the role of family caregivers in mental health care.


Religious minorities say Quebec’s Christmas gathering plan shows a double standard

Valid critique. I remember when Ontario’s Sunday closing laws (Lord’s Day Act, the Retail Business Holidays Act) were repealed or amended given this discriminatory impact on other religions along with general public pressure in the early 1990s:

Members of religious minority groups in Quebec are decrying the provincial government’s plan to allow Christmas-time gatherings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling the move a sign of a double standard.

The condemnations came days after Premier Francois Legault offered Quebecers what he dubbed a “moral contract” through an offer to raise gathering limits over a four-day period starting on Christmas Eve.

“It’s disappointing,” said Yusuf Faqiri, a representative of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “The Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Sikh community, when we had our respective holidays, we were not able to gather.”

Legault announced the terms of the Christmas repreive on Thursday, saying groups of up to 10 could gather between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27. The short-term move marks a sharp reversal from rules currently in place in much of the province, where all indoor gatherings are banned in regions classified as red zones under the province’s pandemic response plan.

Faqiri said his objections to the move aren’t rooted solely in the pandemic. His organization is one of several that is currently challenging Quebec’s secularism law in court. That law bans some public servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols while working, on the grounds that the state must be religiously neutral.

He said it’s “a contradiction” to defend that bill while allowing Christmas gatherings.

“All Quebecers, from all faith groups, from all respective traditions, we’re all proud participants in the society,” he said. “But in order for us to do that, we should all be treated the same and that’s where the fundamental issue lies.”

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, said Jewish people have been left out.

“But we’ve been left out of something I wouldn’t want to be included in,” she quipped.

Grushcow said she’s worried that the allowance for gatherings will put vulnerable people and teachers at risk.

“I don’t know that the government’s following the science and the medical wisdom,” she said. “That’s the piece that worries me.”

She said she doesn’t want the government to allow people to gather for Hanukkah, noting that her congregation has already made it through more important Jewish holidays in the midst of the pandemic.

“We made it through Passover, we made it through Rosh Hashanah, we made it through Yom Kippur,” she said. “So if anything, I would hope that our experience can show that it’s possible to be creative and still be connected, even while keeping each other safe.”

Grushcow said there is an inconsistency when it comes to the Quebec government’s approach to secularism.

“You’re saying that you can rearrange the whole school calendar and put a society at risk so folks can celebrate Christmas, but you’re not going to let it teacher wear a hijab or a kippah,” she said. “It is a bit of a challenge.”

When asked about people who don’t celebrate Christmas at press conference on Thursday evening, Legault said he believes allowing for gatherings around Christmas is what most Quebecers want.

Other rabbis echoed Grushcow’s concerns.

“While we appreciate the intent of the Quebec government’s decision to accommodate families and allow them to gather for Christmas, it is unfortunate and disturbing that it does not apply to all faith communities,” Rabbi Reuben Poupko, the co-chair of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec and the rabbi of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Montreal, said in a statement. “The elevating of one faith community over another is inappropriate, and all faith communities should be treated in an equitable manner.”

At a technical briefing on Friday morning, public health officials said they didn’t specifically choose to centre the moral contract around Christmas but selected the dates because they fell in the middle of the winter school break.


Seasons Greetings and Happy New Year

The Marsh In Winter

The Marsh in Winter, Julius Griffith

Whatever your tradition or faith, best wishes for the holiday season and the new year.

My blog will resume in early January.

Douglas Todd: Let’s feel free to be religious at Christmas

Douglas Todd on the annual ‘War on Christmas’ ritual, and the need for greater public recognition of faith:

Instead of inadvertently silencing Christian and other religious people, then, let’s truly recognize this is a pluralistic country, with many faiths and secular world views.

That means encouraging the expression of virtually all world views, religious and secular, in the public square. (And also being open to criticism of them.)

When it comes to publicly recognizing Christmas along with other festivals, however, the trickiest part is pragmatic.

Statistics Canada says two-thirds of Canadians consider themselves Christian, a one-quarter consider themselves non-religious and the rest following other faiths.

It would be more than awkward to have vacation days to mark the festivals of every faith, no matter how small their membership. Chaos could reign, especially in workplaces. But other gestures can make possible diverse expressions.

Given the ethno-cultural and religious fragmentation in Canada, it’s conceivable a decorated Christmas tree display could have a unifying influence in this country.

After all, I could name countless atheists who merrily put up Christmas trees. Sikhs often do the same thing. And Muslims tell me they love Christmas lights and the focus on Jesus and Mary, since they’re important to Muslim tradition. Hindus and Buddhists, too, are pretty relaxed about spiritual diversity.

Indeed, even though B.C. has one of the world’s highest ratios of religious eclecticism and foreign-born residents, an Insights West poll last year found that British Columbians prefer to say “Merry Christmas” by a 10-to-one margin over “Happy Holidays.”

These British Columbians appear aware that, when a North American travels to a predominantly Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto or Muslim country, the citizens are not going to be apologizing for public expressions of their long-held customs.

Similarly, if we take the spirituality and tradition out of Canadian Christmas, we’ll just end up with commercialism and Jingle Bells triteness.

Douglas Todd: Let’s feel free to be religious at Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Christmas TreeBest wishes for the holidays and 2014, whatever your holiday you celebrate and traditions. For my Persian friends, Happy Yalda (winter solstice today).

Thank you all for your readership and interest in the issues raised in this blog and my book.

I will be taking a break from blogging during the holidays and hope that all of you will find time to recharge with friends and family.


Shamim Chowdhury: Why as a Muslim I Celebrate Christmas

Shamim Chowdhury: Why as a Muslim I Celebrate Christmas.