Protest against Quebec's Charter of Values in 2013. Photo: ibourgeault_tasse/Flickr

There are currently hearings at the Quebec national assembly on the latest effort to protect the “secular” character of the Quebec state. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s Bill 21 would forbid teachers, judges, prosecutors, nurses and other public servants from wearing visible religious symbols, such as the Jewish yarmulke or Muslim hijab.

Among those who have testified are self-appointed spokespeople for atheists and agnostics, who argue that organized religion has been, on the whole, a divisive and oppressive force. They heartily support Bill 21 and only wish it went much further.

These secular fundamentalists say that to free ourselves from the yoke of religious obscurantism we must deny basic rights to members of religious and cultural minority groups. It is a line of argument this writer finds to be particularly odious.

Here’s why.

Go to the English Protestant school

I grew up in a Quebec that could in no way be described as secular.

For the first 14 years of my life, the now defunct Union Nationale ruled the province. Its leader, until his death in 1959, was the formidable strongman, Maurice Duplessis. The Union Nationale believed in a close alliance between the Roman Catholic Church and the state. Schools, many hospitals and social services were, for the most part, run by the church or other religious entities.

My family was secular, left-wing and Jewish. Religion did not play a big role in our life, although a cultural and historic sense of being Jewish did.

The Second World War was not far behind during my formative years, and we were painfully aware of the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate the Jews, long before the Holocaust became a fashionable subject. (It was the beginning of the Cold War. The mainstream view was that we should not dwell on the crimes of the Nazis, now that the West Germans were our allies in the global contest with the Soviet bloc.)

My parents wanted me to go to school in French, to learn the language of the Quebec majority. But schools were organized on the basis of religion back then. The French-language schools of Quebec were also Catholic schools. They were exclusively for Roman Catholics, and had no place for heterogeneous elements.

We Jews were all directed to the Protestant, English-language school system. There, we learned New Testament Bible stories and sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” with gusto.

I mastered the French language nonetheless, and later in life worked almost exclusively in French for a number of years.

Law 101, but still religiously based schools

My three kids came of school age in the post French Language Charter (Law 101) days, which deemed that French-language education was to be the default choice for the vast majority of Quebecers.  

French-language schools became obligatory for almost everyone, including many who had previously opted for, or been directed to, the English system. The only exceptions were children of parents who were educated in Quebec, in English. They could attend English schools, if they wished.

My own children fell into that exception category, but we chose the French system. That meant sending them to Catholic schools. Unlike me, they were welcomed without reservation.

Still, as non-Catholics, we had to sign a form requesting an exemption for our kids from formal, Roman Catholic religious instruction. Each week, when the time came for the obligatory catechism class, our kids were singled out and sent, with the handful of others from non-Catholic or avowedly non-believing families, to classes in “morale,” a non-sectarian course in ethical values. When I once asked a principal what they actually did in “morale” class, he answered: “Ils jasent” (“They chat.”)

The first Parti Québécois (PQ) government, led by René Levesque, passed Law 101 in 1977, but it was not until 1997 that a later PQ government got around to eliminating religious-based public schools and school boards — too late for my kids.  

Even after they eliminated public schools with religious identity, the Quebec government allowed a sort of escape route for those who still wanted denominational education. It continued to provide generous subsidies to private schools. And so, Quebec middle class families maintained their access to private, and very often religiously-based, education.

Francophone — and Muslim — immigrants

Around the same time as it brought in Law 101, Quebec struck a deal with the federal government for a significant measure of control over immigration. In the ensuing years, the province admitted tens of thousands of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. Quebec wanted to favour French-speaking immigrants and, as it happened, a great many of those came from Muslim countries.

Today, practising Muslims from Morocco, Tunisia, Guinea, Mali, Chad and many other countries form a significant part of the larger francophone community, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. They hold jobs in all occupations and professions, including teaching, nursing and the law.

Our grandchild goes to a French public school in Ottawa where the student body is, in the majority, Muslim, from both North and sub-Saharan Africa. There could be a phenomenon of white flight at play here. Ontario still has a separate Catholic school system, and it appears that in Ottawa old-stock, white, French-speaking families have overwhelmingly chosen that system over the public one.

At our grandchild’s French public school, many of the parents and some of the teachers wear the hijab. That’s just the way it is.

Nobody engages in any sort of religious proselytization based on the way they dress. Nobody is trying to recreate an Islamic theocracy on the lines of Duplessis’ church-dominated Quebec. They just want to be part of the larger society, while maintaining their own identity.

I survived learning Christian hymns as a child. Our grandchild will more than survive having visibly Muslim classmates and teachers. She will be enriched by the experience.

As long as the vast majority of visible religious symbols in Quebec were Christian, nobody complained about the undue influence of religion. But now that an Islamic presence has become more visible, more a fabric of everyday life, religious symbols have suddenly become a matter of grave concern.

Frankly, Bill 21 is not really about religion; it is about difference, and a society’s capacity to accept it as a normal and unexceptional reality.

I share the view of the ardent secularists who told a committee of the Quebec national assembly that, throughout history, religion has contributed as much misery as it has good to humanity — maybe even more.

But if such folks were genuinely worried about the negative impact of religion, they would have long ago removed the huge cross from atop Mount Royal and renamed every street and place name in Quebec that starts with “Saint” with something appropriately secular.

That is a ridiculous suggestion, of course.

So is telling a person who wears a turban or a yarmulke or a hijab they may not teach or guard prisons or plead in court or tend to the sick.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: ibourgeault_tasse/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...