Quebec's Bill 21 is about values, but of a racist sort

What's there to say about Quebec's Bill 21 on secularism, now being debated, that forbids figures like judges, cops and teachers(!) from "wearing religious symbols." First: it's Islamophobic. Second, it could be worse, it's not nearly as crass as Stephen Harper's "Barbaric Cultural Practices Act" was.

Actually, for a bigoted law, it's kind of gentle. Out of a certain Canadian-Quebecois fair-mindedness, it includes headgear bans on Jews and Sikhs too. It even says it'll remove the blatantly Christian cross hanging in Quebec's legislature. It also "grandfathers" headgear rights of current teachers, cops etc., though not if they're promoted or change jobs.

The premise is, Quebec must defend its identity. That rang truer in the centuries before the 1960s, when Quebec took charge of its destiny. Now it sounds more like calls to save "white identity" because it's "an identity like any other."

As Daniel Trilling says in the London Review, such claims conceal the realities of power. When your "identity" is dominant, you don't get to claim victimhood. You may feel vulnerable and it's possible to sympathize with that but it's another thing to accept and reinforce your delusions and mythologies.

As for the claim that Bill 21 defends "Quebec values:" Values evolve; they're never self-evident. The CAQ government is Quebec nationalist and backs this law. The PQ is separatist and can't make up its mind. Quebec Solidaire is independantiste and opposes it. Values, shmalues. What's the alternative? Stop bickering over "our" values; discuss what's right and fair.

What I find more intriguing than this dreary rehash is what it says about religion today. Bill 21 bans wearing religious gear without saying what religion is. Tats and dreads aren't barred but why not, if they're religiously connected, as they sometimes are. (Answer: it's the Islamophobia, stupid.)

Quebec premier Legault got unexpectedly drawn into this morass and sounded like a 14-year-old in a bull session: "I hope there is a God, otherwise I think that if not, life would be unfair to those who live in misery, who die young … I hope that God exists, but I do not have confirmation." Good input, premier!

The most peculiar voice has been legendary philosopher Charles Taylor. Eleven years ago he and a colleague led an inquiry into "reasonable accommodation" of religious differences, that recommended limits, like those in Bill 21, though narrower. Now he's withdrawn his support for his own report. He says he was naïve, he didn't know it would be used to extend discrimination rather than reining it in.

In effect, Taylor says he was suckered into blowing a dog whistle for hate in the name of protecting Quebec's identity. The premier mocks: "He's the one who left the Bouchard-Taylor consensus."

So Taylor comes across as a muddled NDP-Ish civil rights buff. But he's also a globally renowned thinker on the meaning of religion in A Secular Age -- the title of a doorstopper he wrote. In it he explored the search for religious meaning in an irrevocably secular world. That need doesn't simply vanish. In fact, after the Cold War, with Marxism's demise and loss of faith in progress, it may've become more poignant. Marx himself said religion wasn't just the opiate of the masses, it's also "the heart of a heartless world."

Taylor writes about "the conditions of experience and search for the spiritual" in our secular epoch. He examines the changing "palette of points of contact with fullness."

Why should people in public posts be penalized for that quest and ways to concretize it in their lives as long as they don't harm others? Bill 21 says they can't include overt signs, like headgear, but that's precisely one way to search out and engage meaning -- by imbuing daily experiences, like food or clothing, with it. Anyone who knows Judaism, for instance, will recognize it.

I confess I find some of Taylor's writing tough going and sometimes skim (OK, skip) parts of his massive -- pardon, magisterial -- books. But surely he has more to offer on this subject than an admirable admission that he got it wrong.

And any attempt to treat Quebec today like France in the age of Voltaire or Quebec under Duplessis is ignorant -- or a cover for Islamophobia to win votes.

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Coastal Elite/Flickr

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