Secularism, xenophobia and Quebec politics: Taking a closer look

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A blogger used this image to highlight the hypocrisy of the proposed Charter.

Last week's announcement that a Parti Québécois (PQ) government would introduce a Charter of Seculaism, which would include a ban on religious symbols in the public service, made headlines across Canada. Several commentators went so far as to accuse the PQ of xenophobia, a common response whenever the PQ talks about issues relating to culture and national identity. But is this really a justifiable response?

In no way do I intend to argue that the PQ is undeserving of criticism for this proposal. Although few details have been released about what the Charter would look like, PQ leader Pauline Marois has made it clear that Christian symbols would mostly be exempt. Whether this exemption is explicit or implicit (e.g. by only banning ostentatious religious symbols) the law would clearly be discriminatory and in all likelihood run counter to Quebec's quasi-constitutional Charter of rights and freedoms, not to mention the constitution itself.

The PQ has tried to portray the policy as simply providing greater clarity on the separation of church and state. However, based on how it has been explained thus far, the policy appears to actually run counter to this principle, as it would in fact make Christianity the de facto state religion.

So the PQ can and should be criticized for their hypocrisy and for proposing a policy that discriminates against religious minorities, but a charge of xenophobia requires further proof. In fact, it requires a leap of faith.

As most of you probably know, a xenophobe is someone with an intense or irrational fear, or hatred, of foreigners and foreign cultures. Therefore, if we are to believe that the PQ is xenophobic, it must be demonstrated that their decision to propose a Charter of Secularism is motivated by a prejudice against religious minorities.

The truth, however, is that we can only speculate as to the PQ's true motives, so we can never say for certain whether this policy reflects an inherent intolerance within the party. Yet there's nothing preventing us from considering the relative merit of competing theories on just what the PQ is truly up to. I believe there's a more sensible political explanation, though it requires some historical context.

Shortly before the 2007 Quebec election, the accommodation of religious minorities became a prominent topic of discussion in the province. What some referred to as the “reasonable accommodation crisis” was essentially manufactured by Quebec's tabloids, who evidently thought that playing up fears of foreigners makes for good copy.

The “crisis” was nothing more than a series of isolated incidents, such as a YMCA installing frosted windows in its gym so that students at an adjacent Jewish Orthodox school would be spared the sight of women in their workout clothes. Another front-page story involved a sugar house (a.k.a. cabane à sucre) deviating from the traditional recipe by making pea soup without pork for a group of Muslim customers (presumably the tabloids would have considered this less newsworthy had they simply been vegetarian).

Mario Dumont, then leader of the now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec  (ADQ), was the first to politicize the issue, calling on the Charest government to respond to the “crisis.” The ADQ was a marginal third-party at the time, having only won four seats in the previous election, which was still its best ever result. Dumont would benefit greatly from his championing of the “reasonable accommodation” issue, winning enough seats in the 2007 election to form the official opposition in a minority legislature.

The PQ meanwhile, under the leadership of André Boisclair, mostly ignored the issue. They most likely assumed that they could win without stooping to Dumont's level, since Charest was unpopular and as the Official Opposition, they were the government-in-waiting. This strategy failed miserably, as the PQ suffered their worst defeat since their first-ever election.

Another election took place the following year, in the context of a global recession. Charest had called the election on the pretext that the minority legislature was dysfunctional, and that he required a majority government to ensure the best outcome for Quebec in economically turbulent times.

Voters seemed less concerned about religious accommodation when their livelihood was threatened, as Charest won a majority. Meanwhile, the ADQ was once again relegated to third-party status, prompting Dumont to resign and dealing the party a blow from which it would never recover, as it has since been integrated into the nascent Coalition Avenir Québec.

In this current election, the economic outlook is cheerier, meaning the issue of reasonable accommodation can provide the opposition parties with traction amongst voters who feel as though the Charest government has failed to respond appropriately.

The CAQ is led by a former cabinet minister and was leading opinion polls less than a year ago, and are thus a more formidable foe than the ADQ ever was. The PQ is likely calculating, given how the same strategy worked in 2007, that they can't afford to abandon the issue of reasonable accommodation to the CAQ, and still hope to form the next government.

And make no mistake about it, the CAQ is also campaigning on the reasonable accommodation issue. A quick read of the CAQ platform reveals that they're proposing their own Charter of Secularism, which we can assume will be similar to the PQ's. Based on what little information both parties have given us about their respective charters, the key difference I can see is that the CAQ would only ban the wearing of religious symbols by “State officials in positions of authority,” while the PQ's ban would apply to all civil servants. The CAQ is also making it clear that Christians would enjoy a special status, since their platform states that they would keep the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly.

So it's clear that both the PQ and the CAQ deserve to be accused of pandering to a part of the electorate that can most kindly be described as misguided by yellow-journalism, although some of these voters are likely actual xenophobes. But it's equally clear that critics who accuse either party of being xenophobic are going too far.

Also, there seems to be a double standard at play here. Why aren't Canada's political commentators accusing the CAQ of being xenophobic? My guess is that some of them aren't as concerned about religious freedom as they make themselves out to be, and the truth is they simply can't pass over an opportunity to delegitimize sovereignists by labelling them as intolerant. It's really nothing more than our own Canadian version of McCarthyism.


Trevor Hanna is a former Vice-President (Federal and International Affairs) of the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ) and an avid political observer. He has degrees in Physics and Journalism from McGill and Concordia respectively, and is currently studying law at the Université de Montréal.

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