Politics and religion: Quebec's secular attire debate opens a Canadian can of worms

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If I wrote in this space, a few days ago, that when the "children of Law 101" started streaming into French schools in the late 1970s and 1980s there were still "crucifixes all over the place" I did not intend to denigrate Roman Catholicism or its symbols, notably the cross.

To my dear friend (and perhaps some others) who thought I was making more than a statement of fact, I apologize if I expressed myself inelegantly and conveyed the wrong impression.

I raised the whole question of Quebec's extremely slow and gradual "deconfessionalization" of education to contrast the cautious and ginger manner in which successive Quebec governments handled relations with the once all-powerful Roman Catholic Church with the abrupt, insensitive and preemptory way in which the current PQ government says it will assure the "secular face of the Quebec State."

My only purpose was to make a point about the coherence and consistency of Quebec government policies, today and yesterday, not to denigrate the Roman Catholic Church.

More than one observer has noted that the religious attire provisions of the PQ's proposed charter are “a solution in search of a problem."

But the only "problem" -- if there is any -- has nothing to do with the comportment of any sort of public servant.

The real "problem" is that, as one woman on an open-line radio show told Minister Bernard Drainville, "Montreal does not feel like Québec any more" -- what with all the head scarves and other manifestations of what the caller took to be the "Muslim invasion."

One would have expected the Minister to reply that his government has no objection to people walking down St. Denis Street wearing a head scarf or kippah or cross.

In fact, Drainville could have said, the PQ government celebrates Quebec's tolerance, diversity and openness. The purpose of its proposed charter, he could have told the aggrieved caller, is only to assure the neutrality of the State, not all public places.

Surprisingly however, Drainville's response was to actually empathize with the caller's obviously narrow-minded and xenophobic anguish, thus giving the lie to the PQ's claim that its charter is anything other than a wink and a nod to the lurking prejudice and narrow-mindedness out there.

Secularism does not have to be a new kind of orthodoxy

And then there was my other friend and reader who somehow inferred that because I had pointedly made note of the one-time prevalence of crucifixes in schools that were theoretically open to children of all faiths and non-believers, I would therefore applaud the proposed secularism charter.

My message to that friend is that this writer (like many others) sees a major difference between an open and inclusive secular society and a kind of faux secularism that imposes its own form of rigidity and orthodoxy on everyone.

It seems almost tragic that the long struggle in Quebec for equal rights for all, regardless of religion (in education and elsewhere in the public sphere), should degenerate into an attack on the basic right of people to dress, within reasonable limits, how they choose.

The comedian Mort Sahl once quipped that it was dangerous to talk about politics, religion or sex in polite social situations.

It seems that one certainly touches a nerve when discussing the first two members of that trio in public spaces of any sort, including online spaces.

There has been much vehement reaction of all sorts to the Quebec government proposal.

Even my own modest effort, in this space, elicited more than its share of comment.

Feeding the bigot's stereotype of a narrow-minded Quebec?

A number who wrote worried that the proposed charter would open the doors to the Quebec-phobia that lurks dangerously close to the surface in English Canada.

One English Montrealer, now living Washington, D.C., wrote:

"The PQ's approach to this stuff is provincial and self-absorbed, but I don't think they are congenitally more racist than any other group.  Maybe some of them need to get out more. I do think it should be recognized that the Quebecois have managed their state, through history, with a minimum of violence and with more permissive openness than most, including south of the border where I now live. That's why so many people not pure laine still want to live there."

Another one-time Quebecker with continuing close ties to his home province worried explicitly that the charter would fuel the bigots' stereotype of Quebec:

"The new charter is an Orangeman's delight. It is a throwback to pre-Second World War ideas of purity in appearance and conformity in public practices. It is a fearsome document: our way or the highway. It feeds off fears and legitimizes hatreds. Abbé Groulx would be proud."

A Montreal academic who works and publishes in both English and French agreed, and added:

"I think the PQ has set back discussion of the real issue: what does it mean to live in a modern democracy where the State remains neutral to questions that should be matters of individual choice? ... Initially, that debate emerged in parallel with a new approach to using the mobilizing power and resources of the State for social development and the common good of all citizens. Wrong-headedly and muddled as only the PQ can be, I think Marois et cie. honestly think they are continuing the process begun with the Quiet Revolution. . . .I think the PQ should have STARTED by taking down the crucifix in the National Assembly, as a concrete demonstration of what they mean by a neutral state, and said 'Now let's talk about next steps.'"

Montreal sociologist Victor Armony evoked his early years living under the junta in Argentina where an official set of "values" entailed an oppressive "white, Christian" dogmatism. He argued that democracy is based on principles which are flexible and open-ended, not rigid and immutable values.

Is this the reaction you hoped for Mme Marois?

Finally, as though to confirm the worst fears of so many, there was this angry and dyspeptic reaction from a Montrealer who left Quebec many decades ago, and now lives in Western Canada:

"I am more and more convinced that English Canada should politely request that either Quebec leave Confederation legally or face expulsion -- or move to become like the other nine provinces ... I am totally fed up with the PQ government (Liberals not much better) and its chauvinistic attitude to the French language in North America, a mere 'blip' on the linguistic scene (Spanish, English, Portuguese) and, at best, an historical anomaly. It is time for Canada to revise its 'bilingualism' policy, and even take a good hard look at 'multi-culturalism.' (It's those god-damned '-isms' again!)"

Is this the sort of healthy debate Marios, Drainville et al. are seeking? Enough said.

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