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The debate over Quebec’s secular values charter is not over — far from it.

We are not yet at the beginning of the end of it. We may not have even reached the end of the beginning.

People across Canada are talking about the charter and they are, generally, upset and worried about it — though some falsely believe Quebec’s proposed measures are more draconian than they are.

They believe, for instance, that the religious symbol restrictions would not just apply to Quebec State employees but to clients of the State — to students and patients as well as teachers and nurses.

That is not true, but it was the impression some had at a panel discussion in which this writer participated at Carleton University on Tuesday.

The other members of the panel included a law professor, a communications professor, a religious studies professor and a Muslim community leader.

There was very little disagreement on the over-arching issue.

The organizers had tried, but failed to entice a supporter of Quebec’s proposed new secularism charter rules to take part.

This one-sidedness made some in attendance, including this writer, uncomfortable.

In my own presentation I tried to mitigate the danger of a holier-than-thou stance toward Quebec by putting the Quebec charter initiative into a broader Canadian and even global context.

I am not sure I succeeded.

This is the gist of what I had to say. You can be the judge.

From the Westgate massacre to the Quebec debate

The world is full of torment, violence and injustice.

For the past few days, the mainstream western press has been much preoccupied with one manifestation of that torment, violence and injustice — in Nairobi, Kenya.

It is hard to make an argument that the perpetrators of the attack on the Westgate Mall were only the product of deeper and more enduring sorts of torment, violence and injustice.

Violence does not spontaneously erupt and nor is it, exclusively, the fruit of oppressive and unjust social conditions.

From what we can gather, the perpetrators of the Westgate massacre were inspired by a frightening form of supposedly “religious” fanaticism.

Of course, there is daily violence of all sorts in many parts of the world that does not attract the attention of our Western media.

For more than a decade we in the self-styled “developed world” have been blithely indifferent to the carnage not too far from Nairobi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the Congo’s case, the motivations are greed and lust for power rather than a devotion to religious dogma.

And in the Congo the victims are largely poor, voiceless and powerless people, who live inconveniently far from any international media centre.

The Nairobi victims were mostly part of an affluent elite and included a number of Westerners. And Nairobi is the business and media hub for a good part of sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of ‘terrorism’?

 We are not here to reflect on the Westgate massacre, or other sorts of deadly violence.

But there is more than one connection between Westgate and the matter we are here to discuss: the theatre of the absurd proposal of one Canadian provincial government to create a secular face for the State — by regulating the attire of those who notionally “represent” the State.

The first connection is that the very existence of extremism and organized political violence that calls itself “Islamic” is one of the underlying motivations for Quebec’s proposed new regulations.

Politicians such as Premier Pauline Marois’ point Minister on this file, Bernard Drainville, never talk about it in such open terms.

They simply nod sympathetically when citizens complain that Québec’s metropolis does not feel “Québecois” any more, what with all the head scarves and other Muslim manifestations one encounters on its streets.

A friend who is not Québecois — who comes, in fact, from the Caribbean and lives in Ontario — told me he supported the Quebec proposal for two reasons.

First, he does not like having to deal with “people who cover their faces” (conflating simple head scarves with forms of dress that do indeed obscure the whole face). He has had to have business and professional dealings with such people and it made him very uncomfortable, he says.

Second, he supports the proposals because of “terrorism,” full stop.

He is not alone in these feelings.

Somehow, my friend thinks that if we ban the outward manifestations of Islam we can squelch so-called Muslim extremists in our own society.

Again, the Quebec government never resorts to that sort of argument.

In fact, it claims that its proposed measures are not aimed at Muslims alone, but at all outward manifestations of religion that are too obvious and noticeable.

Further, the Quebec government claims that it is not primarily interested in prohibiting anything.

Mostly, what it wants to do is affirm “Quebec values.” It just so happens that one of the most fundamental of those values is “la laïcité” — roughly translated in English as secularism.

Note that the suffix for the word in French is not “isme” — which would denote an ideology or set of beliefs, something people might choose or not choose to adopt.

The suffix is “-ité” — as in citoyenneté, légalité, acidité, maturité. La laïcité denotes more than a belief or set of beliefs. Its meaning is closer to an existential condition, a state of being.

And so we are talking about a fundamental sense of identity here, and the Quebec government believes it has the right — in fact the obligation — to legislate the characteristics of that sense of identity.

Strange bedfellows on the identity question

 Curiously, in this effort, Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper are very much on the same wavelength.

Now, the Harper government’s Golden Calf is not secularism (or, if you will, “la laïcité”).

It is less sharply and clearly defined.

Harper and his chief Minister on the identity question, Jason Kenney, are more focused on a cluster of elements that make up what they want us all to believe is the Canadian identity.

Those elements include: the monarchy, the military, and the spirit of self reliance and individual initiative.

They exclude: the Charter of Rights, and the Canadian traditions of peacekeeping, peacemaking and practical compassion.

Now, the Harper/Kenney vision has not resulted in a single flashpoint event comparable to Quebec’s proposed ‘dress code.’

But, make no mistake about it, the Harper vision of Canadian identity has spawned significant policy and legislative initiatives.

Notable among those are the government’s refugee reform Bill, C-31, now the law of the land, and the associated abolition of health benefits for a great many of the people seeking refugee status in Canada.

Note that for both Harper and Marois key policies that emerge from their “positive” affirmation of identity are not positive at all.

They are negative, scapegoating and punitive.

The politics of purification

 And that brings us to the other way in which what just happened in Nairobi and today’s topic are connected.

The militants — or terrorists, if you will — who sprayed bullets around a mall in Kenya, or those who, a roughly the same time, killed worshippers at a church in Pakistan, believe themselves to be in an enterprise of purification.

They have a preternatural sense that their very existence is god-given.

And in a real sense they want to impose their near mystical sense of identify on those who do not share it.

They also have a longstanding historic sense of grievance, going back to the Crusades.

Lacking state power to express their identity — while seeking redress for their historic grievances — they resort to guns and bombs.

Well, maybe it is a bit of stretch, but Harper and Marois are, in their own ways, engaged in enterprises of purification.

And in both cases the efforts are nourished at one and the same time by a nearly metaphysical notion of identity and a deep seated sense of grievance.

The Harper Conservatives believe that the long succession of previous Liberal governments — and even the (to them) the would-be Liberal Mulroney Government — had somehow illegitimately defined Canada in terms of a small-l liberal political agenda.

Those small-l liberal terms included: human and civil rights; affirmation of minority identities; a social safety net that extended, in broad terms, nationally (what Brian Mulroney once referred to as a “sacred trust”); bilingualism; and much more.

Among the many tangible policy expressions of that small-l agenda — to name just two — were the Court Challenges Program and an international development policy focused — at least in theory if not always in practice — on global poverty reduction.

The Harper Conservatives abolished the court challenges program early in their first mandate, and have completely shifted Canada’s development assistance so that its new main goal is to act as a facilitator for Canadian mining and energy companies.

Much of what Harper has done — and continues to do — seems motivated by a sense that his Conservative government needs to do “behaviour modification” on a recalcitrant Canadian population — a population Harper has described, in the past, as soft and socialistic.

Approaching the power of the Church gingerly

 As for the Quebec government, its sense of grievance is perhaps a bit more obvious.

It is based on the conquest of 1759 and a long history in which the English speaking business elite and the Roman Catholic hierarchy conspired to keep the mass of French-speaking Quebeckers in their place.

Today, of course, French is the official language of government and business in Quebec, and the face of Quebec, on billboards and in other public manifestations, is unambiguously French.

Many of the sources of that longstanding sense of grievance have been eliminated, especially as regards the power of the English-speaking economic elite.

We should note, however, that from the moment it took power in 1976, the Parti Québecois was very ginger in its dealings with the Roman Catholic Church.

The PQ tackled the language question right away, within months, in the famous Law 101.

But it proceeded at a painfully slow pace to transform and secularize institutions — principally educational institutions — that had a denominational or, as we say in Quebec, “confessional” character.

That task was not completed until long after Law 101 was enacted, sometime in the early part of this century.

Continuation of the long march to a ‘secular society’?

Today, Pauline Marois says her government has a project on par with the French Language Charter that Law 101 created: the “Chartre de la laïcité,” the secularism charter.

As with the first Charter, this new Charter is all about identity.

Those who support this initiative, and consider themselves to be longstanding proponents of “la laïcité,”  say they didn’t fight so hard to get out of shadow of the Church only to have it replaced by the shadow of the Mosque.

But a great many who support the Marois government’s proposals are not fundamentally committed to secularism.

If they have acquiesced in the fact that religious identity has largely been removed from public schools, they were never really disturbed by the crosses on public schools.

It never particularly bothered them that for more than a generation non-Catholics seeking a French language education the Quebec State provided such education largely through avowedly Roman Catholic institutions.

Most of those same folks who support Marois’ proposed clothing restrictions would not support taking down the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly.

That cross is not really about religion, Drainvillle claims. It is of historic significance, he says, forgetting to mention that it was Maurice Duplessis who put it there in 1936.

On a political level, it is convenient for the Parti Québecois that its “enlightened” effort to create a secular society also speaks – in a dog whistle perhaps, but quite clearly, nonetheless – to the too many who are still infected with an enduring sense of xenophobia, who very much want to keep the ‘hordes’ of newly arrived immigrants from non-Western countries in their place.

Happily, if the most recent opinion polls showing declining support for the proposed restrictive measures have any merit, Marois and company may have underestimated Quebeckers. The people may not be as susceptible to the politics of fear and resentment as their elected leaders had thought.

As for the Canadian people, at large, it is far from clear to what extent they support — or are even particularly aware of — the Harper government’s identity agenda. Of course, that lack of awareness probably suits the Harper-ites’ long term behaviour modification goals.

It is best that those having their behaviour modified not feel it too acutely, lest they try to resist.

It also suits the Harper-ites to have so many Canadians clucking their disapproval of Québec rather than paying too close heed to what the Conservatives are doing.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...