Prospects for Secularism

Prospects for Secularism in Canada & Quebec

David Rand
Spokesperson, International Association of Free Thought
President, Libres penseurs athées –- Atheist Freethinkers (Canada)

This article is a somewhat expanded version of a talk presented on 18th November 2012 at the Congress of the Americas, Mar del Plata, Argentina. The version presented at the Congress is available on the web site of the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT). Please consult the links at the end of this article.

Canada is not a secular country constitutionally, although secularism is a popular idea. The province of Quebec has moved further towards secularism than most of the rest of Canada (RoC), and popular support for secularism (laïcité) is stronger than in the RoC. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done even in Quebec, and the challenges are great.

To understand those challenges, we must address the following aspects.

  • The colonial heritage: Canada’s history as part of the French empire, then as a set of British colonies, the British origins of the Canadian constitution, and the monarchy.
  • The influence of the American Religious Right: currently a major factor because of the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  • Multiculturalism: a form of ethnic essentialism masquerading as a corrective for racism. Closely related to religious accommodationism.
  • English-French tensions: The “two solitudes” of Canada’s two founding language groups, with French-speakers concentrated (but not exclusively) in Quebec.

The Colonial Heritage

In 1534 when Jacques Cartier claimed what became New France for king François I, one of his expedition’s aims was to convert all whom they encountered – the native people’s – to Christianity. Over two centuries later, the British conquered New France. Another century later, in 1867, an act of the British parliament, the British North America (BNA) Act, formed Canada by federating four colonies, now called provinces, the two largest being Quebec and Ontario.

The 1982 Canadian constitution is an amended version of the BNA Act. The repatriation of this act to Canada, i.e. its transfer from London to the Canadian parliament, with several additions such as a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an amending formula, was approved by all provinces except Quebec. It thus remains controversial in Quebec. Although the constitution specifies that education is under provincial jurisdiction, Section 93 entrenches any existing Catholic and Protestant “denominational school privileges” and gives the federal government the power to force provinces to support Catholic and Protestant school systems. To eliminate these privileges – which are a vestige of 19th century sectarianism – a province may act unilaterally and hope that the federal government does not exercise its coercive power, or it may negotiate a bilateral constitutional amendment, involving only the one province and the federal government.

Of Canada’s 10 provinces, 4 were not burdened with such privileges when they joined Canada and 3 have eliminated them since: Manitoba in 1890, Quebec in 1997 and Newfoundland and Labrador in 1998. Such privileges persist in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In particular, the Ontario Catholic school system receives 100% public funding.

The 1982 constitution includes a Charter of Rights and Freedoms whose preamble states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” This is arguably incompatible with section 2 of the Charter which guarantees freedom of conscience.

Canada continues to be a constitutional monarchy, with the same monarch as Great Britain. This means that Canada’s head of state is not only a foreigner, but must be a Protestant Christian! Large numbers of Canadians (but mainly outside Quebec!) maintain an ill-considered loyalty to this anachronism and a bizarre pride in how it makes Canada different from the USA. One might say that they are star-struck.

Influence of the American Religious Right

Although the USA is constitutionally secular or at least nonsectarian with respect to religion, its population is very religious and faith is an unavoidable aspect of the American political scene. Canada on the other hand does not have a secular constitution, but it is less religious demographically. The USA-Canada border being much more porous to popular culture than it is to constitutional principles, the influence of American evangelical Christianity on Canada is significant. Of course this aspect is not all imported from south of the border, as the two countries share a common anglo tradition from which this religious current derives.

This right-wing Christian influence is more evident in recent years because of the Conservative party government of Stephen Harper, especially since it won majority government status in 2011 (minority government 2006-2011). Its supporters are concentrated in the western provinces. The Conservative Party is the result of a hostile takeover of the old, more centrist Progressive Conservative Party by the decidedly right-wing Alliance Party (formerly Reform Party).

One particularly egregious manifestation of the religious orientation of Canada’s current government is its intention to establish an Office of Religious Freedom, modelled on the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom. There were already concerns that the Office would be too centred on western religions, especially Christianity. Then, in a speech to a Religious Liberty Dinner in May 2012 in Washington, D.C., Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird baldly declared, “We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” That such an odious repudiation of freedom of conscience could be made by the official responsible for the new Office does nothing to reassure secularists.


Multiculturalism reinforces differences between groups based on ethnic and religious identities. It grants certain “group rights,” often to the detriment of individual rights. It favours tradition over modernism and community over fundamental human rights. It supports and emboldens traditional religious leaders and is closely related to accommodationism, the practice of granting privileges – incompatible with universal privileges – on the basis of membership in a religious or ethnic community.

I would argue that precursors of multiculturalism can be found in the effective imperial strategy, practised by the Persian and Roman empires in antiquity and by the British empire in more recent centuries, which facilitated the integration of a conquered people into the empire without unduly upsetting the local elite, a means of maintaining social control by making use of existing socio-politico-religious structures, while taking executive control of the territory involved. Indeed, this is what the British did when they conquered New France two and a half centuries ago. This approach is certainly preferable to other, more brutal imperial strategies! But even if somewhat enlightened, it still remains imperial.

Multiculturalism was formalized and elevated to government policy by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971. One of Trudeau’s goals was to drown Quebec nationalism in a sea of multiple cultures, thus replacing “bi” with “multi” in the now obsolete term “biculturalism.”

In Canada outside of Quebec, multiculturalism remains a sacred cow, although some voices of dissent are beginning to be heard. The term is often used in contrast to intolerance or even racism, as if anyone who criticizes it must be a xenophobe who hates immigrants. If Muslims are involved, accusations of “Islamophobia” fall upon those who question multiculturalism. But in reality, multiculturalism is itself a close cousin of racism – Djemila Benhabib calls it “multiracism” – because it exaggerates the importance of the community into which one is born, to the detriment of one’s individuality.

Perhaps support for multiculturalism is motivated in part by feelings of guilt over Canada’s racist past, inspired by a very British sense of superiority. At any rate, multiculturalism is a matter of pride to many in RoC, allowing Canadians to feel superior to Americans and to “xenophobic” Quebecers.

English-French Tensions

The split between English- and French-speaking Canadians, and in particular between Quebec and the RoC, continues to be a major aspect of Canadian politics, with implications for secularism. Multiculturalism is less popular in Quebec, but still influential. Secularism is better understood and more highly valued in Quebec, undoubtedly because of the French heritage of laïcité. Nevertheless, many French-speaking Quebecers, even non-believers, maintain a sense of nostalgia and loyalty to the Catholic Church, comparable to loyalty to the monarchy in RoC.

The Religious Left

We all know the religious right. Now meet the religious left, or, more accurately, the multicultural left. The political left in the RoC, and to some extent even in Quebec, is strongly supportive of multiculturalism. In Ontario, the left-of-centre NDP (New Democratic Party) fully supported and assisted in the implementation of extensions to the parallel Catholic school system whose funding has recently been increased to 100%. It was NDPer and former attorney-general Marion Boyd who in 2004 proposed including Muslim sharia law in arbitration of family law and inheritance. Fortunately, a widely based opposition, including the French Libre Pensée, succeeded in convincing the Ontario government to reject this idea and, further, to remove recognition of other religious traditions.

The left is so besotted with multiculturalism and accommodationism that they sometimes make the political right look very good in comparison. In late 2011, Jason Kenny, federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, adopted a policy banning the practice of wearing face-coverings during citizenship hearings, something which the multicultural left would probably never have had the courage to do. The policy was a response to complaints from citizenship judges and others that some Muslim women were refusing to remove their niqab when taking the oath of Canadian citizenship. Kenny is no secularist, but in this case he stumbled, as if by mistake, upon a reasonable secular measure. Kenny and those who supported his decision were exposed to accusations of “Islamophobia” from multiculturalists.

However, since pandering to the leadership of ethnic and religious communities is a common way of seeking votes, right-wing parties such as the Conservatives are not above adopting this opportunistic tactic on occasion.

The Quebec School System

As noted previously, in 1997 Quebec eliminated its constitutional obligation to maintain separate Protestant and Catholic school systems. About a decade later, it finally put an end to religious school boards and installed an ostensibly secular educational system with language-based (i.e. French and English) school boards.

But this new secular system, paradoxically, includes even more religious content that the old system because in September of 2008 the Ministry of Education introduced a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) programme which is compulsory at all levels of primary and secondary school (11 years). This programme covers a few major religions, especially Christianity, but gives little or no consideration to atheists and other non-religious persons. The implication is that everyone has a religion, without which they have no cultural identity. Even the title is contentious, because it implies that ethics belong to the religious domain, as if morality without religion were impossible.

This new programme was astutely promoted by a strong religious faction, mainly Catholic, which remains entrenched in Quebec’s Ministry of Education and which has succeeded in maintaining religious instruction in an ostensibly secular system. It did this by appealing to “tolerance” and “openness” and by riding the fashionable wave of multiculturalism. ERC can be viewed as a make-work programme for theologians and other religion specialists, allowing them to save their jobs as teachers of teachers of religion, positions which were threatened by the secularization of the public school system. In other words, it is a misappropriation of public funds.

In addition, Quebec taxpayers continues to fund private schools – many of which are religious – to the tune of 60%.

The Ontario School System

In Ontario, the injustice of 100% public funding for a separate school system dedicated to one and only one religious group – Catholics – is becoming increasingly obvious and public sentiment is increasingly sympathetic to the idea of ending the separate system. The main public system has become Protestant only in name but in reality is a secular system open to everyone. The United Nations has officially censured Canada twice – in 1999 and again in 2005 – for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by allowing a privilege accorded to one religious group and denied to others. The expense of maintaining two parallel public systems is also a major issue. The Catholic system has attempted to forbid gay student associations, in violation of basic human rights, and this too has increased public support for ending the separate Catholic system.

Organizations such as One School System for Ontario (OSSO), the Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) and Civil Rights in Public Education (CRIPE) are important in the fight to integrate the Ontario public school system.

First Nations and the Residential School System

No discussion of secularism and education in Canada would be complete without mentioning the Indian residential school system. For over a century, this special system funded by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches (Catholic, Anglican and others) was in place, finally ending in 1996. Large numbers of children of First Nations, Métis and Inuit were separated from their parents and forced to attend these schools in which their native languages were forbidden and they were often subject to physical and sexual abuse. In 2008 the Canadian government issued an official apology. An Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and its hearings are currently ongoing.

Municipal Council and Legislature Prayers

Many municipalities throughout Canada, including Quebec, continue to use a religious prayer at the beginning of council meetings. In Quebec, the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) has scored several victories in its effort to have such imposed public prayers removed. The most recent case involves the city of Saguenay, whose mayor is a notorious Catholic fundamentalist – and a comic figure – who refuses to accept the decisions of a human rights tribunal and a lower court which have gone against him. The case will be heard by the Quebec Court of Appeals in late November 2012.

In the province of Ontario, the organization Secular Ontario is currently pursuing similar cases in two municipalities, Peterborough and Owen Sound.

At the level of provincial legislatures, it worth noting that in Quebec’s National Assembly the prayer was replaced in 1976 by a “moment of reflection.” However Ontario’s Legislative Assembly has taken the opposite approach, in keeping with multiculturalism: the traditional Christian Lord’s prayer has been maintained and several other religions have been added, resulting in a smorgasbord of prayers!

A Secularism Charter for Quebec?

Provincial elections in Quebec were held recently (4th September 2012) and the Parti Québécois (PQ) led by Pauline Marois was victorious, although it won only a plurality of seats in the National Assembly and thus forms a minority government. Marois is Quebec’s first female premier. During the election campaign, the PQ promised if elected to adopt a Secularism Charter which, among other things, would forbid the wearing of obvious religious symbols by civil servants on duty. However, Marois also indicated that wearing a small visible crucifix while on duty as a public servant would be acceptable.

Another political party, Québec Solidaire (QS), a promoter of Quebec independence like the PQ but further to the left, won only 2 of 125 seats but appears to have the wind in its sails. QS supports maintaining the right for civil servants to wear the Islamic veil. This is in line with the decision taken in 2009 by the Fédération de Femmes du Québec (FFQ, Quebec Women’s Federation) to oppose any restriction on civil servants wearing the veil, a decision which created widespread indignation among supporters of women’s rights. QS spokesperson Françoise David is a former president of the FFQ. The position of QS and the FFQ falls into the category known as “open secularism” or “laïcité ouverte” which involves an abandonment of secularism by opening public institutions to religious influences.

And then there is the thorny question of the crucifix prominently displayed above the speaker’s chair in the main chamber of the Quebec National Assembly. This obvious violation of secularism dates from the year 1936 when the Duplessis government of the day installed it to symbolize its alliance with the Catholic Church. Over the last few years, a debate has raged over the controversial issue of so-called “reasonable accommodation” which should rather be called religious accommodation because it normally involves the demand for some exception to a rule or law in order to accommodate some religious belief or practice. In 2007, a two-man commission was appointed to hold public hearings and make recommendations on this issue.

One of the commissioners, the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, had just won the notorious Templeton Prize which promotes religion in science and in public life. This arguably put Taylor in conflict of interest, as his mandate as commissioner included the maintenance of church-state separation as one of the fundamental values of Quebec society. The commission’s recommendations were a mixed bag, but clearly influenced by multiculturalism and accommodationism. Nevertheless, one positive recommendation was that the crucifix be removed, but the immediate reaction of all parties in the National Assembly, including the PQ, was to decide that, no, the crucifix will stay.

Thus the PQ position is inconsistent: it claims to want a Secularism Charter but would maintain certain Christian symbols. QS is also inconsistent, claiming to support secularism but allowing civil servants to wear the Islamic veil while on duty. It is as if the PQ promoted secularism for everyone except Christians, while the QS promotes it for everyone except Muslims.

Well known author and critic of Islamism Djemila Benhabib was an unsuccessful candidate for the PQ in the riding of Trois Rivières. Benhabib, a consistent secularist who was recently awarded the International Secularism Prize by the French Comité Laïcité République, distinguished herself from her party’s position during the campaign by calling for removal of the crucifix.

At any rate, given the PQ’s minority status and the lack of support for the idea from opposition parties, it is doubtful that it can succeed in getting a Charter adopted.

One of the arguments put forward by those Quebec secularists who favour independence is that secularism cannot possibly be achieved without first obtaining independence from Canada. This argument is not without merit, given Canada’s constitutional situation and the popularity of multiculturalism in the RoC. However, as we have seen, accommodationism and the “open secularism” model have made significant inroads in Quebec as well and thus compromise efforts to achieve secularism.

A Little Comic Relief

Although Quebec secularists are sometimes accused of “xenophobia,” in reality the opponents of secularism are more likely to display this attitude. During the recent election campaign the previously mentioned mayor of Saguenay declared his anger at foreigners with unpronounceable names dictating rules to Quebecers like him. He was referring to Djemila Benhabib. For your amusement, I offer a very short YouTube video showing a 4-year old child having no trouble pronouncing it, thus shaming the mayor of Saguenay: Cloé et Djemila


To achieve the goal of secularism is a long and arduous task, and Canada and Quebec are no exception. Nevertheless, there is increasing popular support for policies which would remove religious influence, practices and symbols from public institutions and withdraw all taxpayer funding from religious schools. I think we can be optimistic as we continue our work.

I would like to close by stressing one major point which I have so far mentioned only tangentially. The opponents of secularism regularly use the popular fear of atheism – a widespread and ancient prejudice which I call atheophobia – in attempts to frighten the public at the prospect of a State with no religious foundation. It is necessary to remind everyone that religious believers would of course not be excluded by such a State. However, that is not sufficient. We must address the issue of atheophobia directly and frankly by denouncing it as the baseless and odious prejudice which it is. Religion is not the arbiter of morals. We must insist that freedom of religion is impossible without freedom from religion, and that anyone who claims to promote the former while simultaneously denying the latter is at best foolish, and probably dishonest.

That is why I am proud to be involved with an atheist organization in Montreal which promotes secularism. We do not seek to establish atheists as a separate community, similar to a religious group. Rather, our purpose is to work for freedom of conscience – for ourselves as atheists of course, but indeed for everyone, believer and non-believer alike.


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