The Quebec Charter has aroused a jumble of feelings I thought I'd dealt with, or, more probably, would rather not deal with. I'm an atheist. Frequently, one of those "emotional" atheists who gets so carried away at social gatherings, declaring and denouncing the evils of religion, that my kinder, gentler, more agnostic husband has to get my anger in check. Of late, I've begun listening to him and, with time, life-experience, and a few friends of faith, I've become, if not accepting of religion, at least tolerant of a person's belief in it.
After all, I wasn't always an atheist. I won the prize for religion in Grade 8 at St. Margaret Mary's School in Ottawa. My first published work appeared in the Sacred Heart Magazine. Was it about Marguerite d'Youville or Marguerite Bourgeoys? I can't remember. But no matter. Both Quebec nuns have gone on to win the Vatican's big prize, so I was onto a winner in any event.
When I hear Québécois today, defending their proposed Charter as part of their journey to free themselves from the yoke of institutional religion, I can identify. The Church was all-pervasive in my young life. It formed my self-image. Never mind those burqas -- I can remember a feeling of true panic whenever I'd forgotten to bring a hat to wear to mass. A girl, a woman, even a female infant-in-arms couldn't go in to church bare-headed. And it wasn't so much the sense of social shame. I knew I would be insulting Christ on the Cross personally if I appeared before him without covering my hair. A borrowed shred of tissue, tacked on with a couple of bobby pins brought instant relief. Years later, touring the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I much admired Muslim efficiency: blue scarves handed out to all ladies who would have entered otherwise uncovered. Why didn’t the Catholic Women’s League at St. Margaret Mary's think of that?
My faith found its way into my daydreams. Walking to said masses, I used to have Super-Woman fantasies that I would spot an infant dying in the gutter and be able to baptize it, thereby opening the gates of heaven to this tiny, grateful creature. Seriously. Suffice to say, I kept my eyes peeled!
The Church dictated my artistic values. Leaving aside how long it took me to read "Lady Chatterley's Lover," what about missing out on the role-model potential of "Annie Get Your Gun"? When we moved to small-town Cardinal, Ontario, the local priest would come along the Saturday matinee lineup and yank out any Catholic child violating his ban on movies during Lent.
The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) guided my moral choices. As a university student experiencing my first (guilt-ridden) sexual pleasures, condoms were eschewed; that would mean pre-meditating the sin, whereas giving in to temptation on-the spot, so-to-speak, was easier for God to forgive.
It affected my family life. My Protestant father had made the mistake of marrying a Catholic woman and compounded the crime by sending his kids to Catholic school. My grandfather, who otherwise came to love all six of us, and even my Dogan mother, nevertheless never let us forget our misguided beliefs. One of was always slyly offered the "Pope's Nose" at Sunday chicken dinner. Invariably, on the way to his cottage, as we'd pass a large Catholic Church, out it would come: "I know what those priests are up to in there." (Of course, now we know, Grandpa had a point.)
You might think then, that I as much as anyone would be cheering on Premier Marois and the apparent majority of Quebeckers who want to create a state free of (un)holy reminders of the ties, scarves, and turbans that unbind us as a people. But I just can't do it. Leaving aside the whole debate about whether or not religion is an inherent human tendency, my gut tells me this plan is at best, misguided, at worst, mean-spirited. Forcing people to betray their religion by choosing a job over their public accoutrements of faith will surely drive people to hold on to that faith even tighter. Just as I was hurt and confused by my clever and kindly grandfather's rejection of who I thought I was, so too must the wearers of scarves, turbans and, oh, alright, crosses, be hurt by their state's rejection of who they are.
I know the defenders of the charter will say they aren't telling people to leave their religion. But unless I've got it wrong, Islamic women who abandon the headscarf, Sikhs who give up the turban, are, in their minds, abandoning their faith as much as I would have felt going to Mass without that scrap of tissue on my head. People can't be persuaded, badgered, or tortured into giving up a religion. It just leaves, falls away, gets lost in an ah-ha moment they must come to on their own.
That happened to me almost 50 years ago. Lying in a Winnipeg Maternity Ward, locking eyes with my tiny, beautiful son with his wild mop of black hair. I would soon him turn over to the Catholic Children's Aid. But I was resisting the pleas, no, the threats of the nuns who ran the ineptly named Villa Rosa -- home for unwed mothers. They were upset because I refused to allow them to baptize my child before he left the hospital. It seemed so cold, so perfunctory. Why shouldn't his new family mark this momentous occasion with him? Because something could happen and he would end up in Limbo! Ah, Limbo that not quite heavenly place where dead, unbaptized babies go, forever not pure enough to gaze upon the face of God. The Penny from heaven dropped at that moment and I thought: what kind of faith is this that would punish a newborn? With that, said faith disappeared, never to return. Even in a few pitch-black moments when I could have used it. Oh Yes, I know, the Church in 2005 (!!) eschewed with Limbo saying it now has "prayerful hope" heathen babies will be allowed into Heaven. But the balloon's been pricked, my eyes are open … the cat is ...
Oops, I feel the gentle pressure of my husband's hand on my shoulder. And it isn't female submission to accept his warning that I could be working myself into a rant.
Instead, I will just plead with my brothers and sisters in Quebec: Don't do this. Of course, keep any and all religion out of your institutions. But accept your people as they are and trust them to act in the interests of all of you. Be like my Dad. In the midst of our family divisions, he abided by only one shibboleth. The one about Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Works every time.
Kelly Crichton is a retired television producer. Her last project was Series Senior Producer on CBC's "8th Fire" Aboriginal Peoples, Canada and the Way Forward.
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