Secularism Delayed

The Secularization of Quebec Delayed Indefinitely?

David Rand

This article is an English translation of one which appeared in issue #593, July/August 2014, of La Raison, monthly magazine of the French Fédération Nationale de Libre Pensée (National Federation of Free Thought).

The recent elections in Quebec (7th April 2014) represent a serious disappointment for supporters of secularism. The Parti Québécois (PQ), in power since 4th September 2012 but lacking an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly, proposed a charter of a quasi-constitutional nature that would have declared the Quebec state to be officially secular.

Seeking a stronger mandate to adopt this Charter, which remained highly popular despite fierce opposition expressed in the media, the PQ called a general election in the late winter of 2014. However, during the campaign, its lead in the polls quickly dissipated as the attention of the electorate was gradually distracted from secularism to focus more on the PQ’s sovereignist agenda and on its recruitment of the media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose reputation risked tarnishing that of a party claiming to be progressive. The result was a crushing defeat for the PQ. Its main opponent, the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), won an absolute majority of seats. The PQ is left licking its wounds. The Charter it proposed is now a dead letter.

March for Secularism, Montreal, 2014-04-05
March for Secularism, Montreal, 2014-04-05
Photo excerpted from the video by Alain Trempe

The proposed Charter announced in September of 2013 carried the simple title of “Charter of Quebec Values” while the official Bill 60, published in November, had the less ambiguous but more verbose title “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.” The Bill formally declared separation between religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions. It imposed on public servants a duty of discretion and neutrality with regard to religion, prohibiting religious symbols in the public service and reaffirming gender equality. It established clear guidelines to regulate so-called “reasonable” accommodations which in the past have resulted in granting certain privileges to various religious groups. All of these measures would have had the effect of formalizing the secular nature of the state and ensuring the independence and autonomy of the state with respect to religion.

The most controversial aspect of the Charter was undoubtedly the prohibition on public servants wearing conspicuous religious symbols while on duty. Yet, there already exists a regulation requiring that Quebec public servants refrain from displaying obvious political symbols while on the job, thus avoiding partisan displays in the public service. The new ban proposed in the Charter would have been a modest and reasonable extension of that existing duty, given the partisan and often political nature of religious symbols. But for opponents of secularism – some of whom claimed to be defenders of secularism, but who in reality advocated a very diluted and ineffectual pseudo-secularism – this rule would constitute a serious threat to freedom of religion. Opponents of the Charter even went so far as to accuse Charter supporters of racism, xenophobia, intolerance and so on, thus demonizing any support for a republican form of secularism.

And yet, surveys indicated that the population of Quebec was largely sympathetic to the idea, which led some Charter opponents to denigrate Quebeckers in general, accusing them of being inbred fools obsessed with identity politics. Opposition to the Charter was often dishonest; listening to the denunciations, one had the impression that the Charter’s ban on religious symbols was a vehicle to persecute ethnic minorities, while in fact it would have been only a modest constraint on freedom of expression for state employees during working hours. Proponents of multiculturalism and fans of ghettoized ethno-religious communities joined fundamentalist Muslims in order to throw spurious accusations of “islamophobia” at Charter supporters.

A broadly-based Rassemblement pour la laïcité (Alliance for Secularism) was founded in order to support the Charter, rallying a considerable diversity of participants: secular associations of course, trade unions, immigrant groups, feminists, lesbians and gays, atheists, humanists, etc. Our association Atheist Freethinkers (AFT), affiliated with the IAFT (International Association of Free Thought), is a participant in the Rassemblement. This coalition has organized several activities, including a demonstration in partnership with the association of “Janettes” (inspired by the famous feminist writer Janette Bertrand) on 26th October 2013, where some twenty thousand people braved the cold and rain in the streets of Montreal. The statement of principles of the Rassemblement attracted more than 60,000 signatures in support of secularism and adoption of a charter.

Beginning in January of 2014, the Commission on Institutions of the Quebec government held public hearings where some two hundred organizations and individuals came forward to express their support for or opposition to the Charter. Several member organizations of the RassemblementCoalition laïcité Québec, Mouvement laïque québécois, Quebec Association of North Africans for Secularism (AQNAL), AFT, Humanist Association of Quebec, etc. – each took advantage of this opportunity to present a brief in support of the Charter – generally critical support, noting the proposed legislation’s various shortcomings and suggesting future measures to continue the secularization of Quebec society, a long process that began a half-century ago at the beginning of the so-called Quiet Revolution. Despite (or perhaps because of!) the heated debate over the Charter, optimism and hope were the order of the day.

In Canada outside Quebec, media hostility to the Charter was even more virulent than in Quebec. Demonizing the PQ being a long-standing national sport in Canada, all-too-familiar accusations of intolerance and identity politics were freely recycled to denounce the bill. However, a survey conducted at the end of the summer of 2013 indicated that 42% of Canadians, all provinces combined, (58% in Quebec) approved the idea of banning religious symbols for public servants as the government of Quebec was planning to do. In addition, a few weeks before the election, three secular organizations outside Quebec, including Humanist Canada, expressed support for the Charter and for the ban.

Those hopes were sadly disappointed on election night, April 7th. Nevertheless, analysis of the election results as well as the latest polls show that the PQ’s defeat cannot be explained by a rejection of the Charter, because it remained popular among the French-speaking majority of the electorate until the campaign’s end. It is much more likely that the defeat was due to a rejection of the PQ’s plans for sovereignty. The Charter, on the other hand, can be considered “collateral damage.”

The question of the crucifix hanging for the last 80 years on the wall of the legislative chamber of the National Assembly – where the very Catholic Premier Duplessis installed it as a symbol of his partnership with the Church – illustrates the inconsistency of those so-called secularists who opposed the Charter. The Charter did not mention the crucifix, neither stating that it should remain nor that it must be removed. Practically all Charter supporters favoured its removal. However, many Charter opponents used this issue to dismiss the Charter as insufficiently secular and gave the false impression that the Charter had specified that it remain. Ironically, Quebec now has a government that has in fact adopted an explicit policy to maintain the crucifix where it is!

Adding to the general disappointment was the fate of Fatima Houda-Pepin, a former member of the Liberal Party, the only elected member the National Assembly from a Muslim background and a fervent critic of Islamism. Without taking a position in favour of the Charter proposed by the PQ, Ms. Houda-Pepin refused to follow her party in condemning the Charter. Instead, she supported a ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by those in authority – judges, police, prosecutors and correctional officers – and she paid for her courage by being expelled from the Liberal Party in January. She then proposed her own bill whose purpose was to counter fundamentalism, a project she had been preparing for years but had keep secret before her expulsion from the party. She ran in the April election as an independent candidate but was defeated by the new Liberal candidate Gaétan Barrette, now Minister of Health, whose campaign, like that of his party, benefited from the Islamist vote.

The adoption of the Charter would have been a major breakthrough for secularism; its defeat is a major setback. The election of the Liberal Party as a majority government – a party which, despite its name and its own history, fiercely opposed secularism during the campaign, a party whose leader Philippe Couillard is a former special adviser to the Saudi Minister of Health – is a victory, at least temporary, for stagnation, multiculturalism and obscurantism.

However, the Alliance for Secularism has no intention of giving up. Vigilance and determination are even more necessary now that opponents of secularism allow themselves to act with the arrogance of the victor. Moreover, the aspirations of the population for formal adoption of true secularism remain unfulfilled.

The questions raised by the Charter remain current and of paramount importance for society, for our quality of life and for freedom. Any complete secular program must include a prohibition on religious symbols in public institutions, including those worn by public servants. This is not only feasible and reasonable, it is desirable and necessary to ensure the religious neutrality of the public service. We must continue to challenge the essentialism promoted by the multiculturalist ideology, i.e. the misconception that religious belief and affiliation are an essential and unchanging aspect of the individual, making each person a prisoner of the community in which he/she was raised and ignoring his/her freedom of conscience.


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