Sometimes in complex or far-reaching events, a small, seemingly less significant factor can illuminate a larger understanding. Successive efforts by Quebec governments to enforce laïcité, a policy of compulsory secularism in the delivery of public services, have included a minor exception that really speaks to the inequality such efforts seek to create.
Since 1936, a not-at-all-subtle crucifix has hung above the speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber of the Quebec National Assembly. A week ago, the Quebec government voted to take down the crucifix as part of a much broader policy against religious symbolism in the province’s public life. Even as they proposed policies that would ban religiosity in the forms of Muslim, Sikh and Jewish head coverings and other items, such as pendants with stars of David or crucifixes, previous governments have contended that the legislature’s cross is exceptional. In the narrative advanced across a decade of this debate, the cross represents an indisputable aspect of Quebec history. Reading between the lines of this argument, the crucifix – the definitive symbol of Christianity – transcends its religious particularity, presumably on the idea that Christianity was an inherent part of Quebec’s history and development.
The message of this exceptionalism is clear as a bell: this place was founded on Christian principles and those of other religious traditions, despite whatever contemporary contributions they might make to Quebec society, rank below the founding religion even as we seek to erase all of them from the public eye. Christianity, in other words, is a first among unequals.
To their credit, the government of Premier François Legault is not excepting the crucifix from this latest bill aiming to impose secularism. The bill, which was introduced last week by the centre-right Coalition de l’avenir du Quebec government elected last year, has all the characteristics that have been discussed in recent years by various governments intent on erasing outward appearances of religious difference. In the provision of government services in which an employee has “coercive” influence – including police, prison guards, judges and teachers – kippot, chadors, turbans, kirpans, crucifixes and anything else that speaks to an individual’s religious affiliation will be banned.
The decision on the National Assembly’s crucifix at least pays lip service to the idea of equanimity in the crushing of religious identity. But it cannot erase the foolishness and inherent injustice of the move. The Quebec government makes absolutely no defence against the charge that the bill contravenes Canada’s and Quebec’s constitutional protections of individual and religious rights. In introducing the new law, the government stated it would use the notwithstanding clause, exempting the law from those constitutional safeguards.
The injustice is a matter of principle. The government – backed, according to public opinion polls, by most Quebecers – is fully prepared to infringe on the rights of people who heed obligations to display certain outward evidence of religiosity. Depending on interpretation and levels of observance, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other people are required to wear identifiably religious objects. Lay Christians, by contrast, are not. A crucifix necklace is a choice, not a requirement. For observant Jewish men, a kippah is not optional.
On a related front, it is illuminating to hear non-Muslims discuss whether a chador, hijab or niqab is a cultural or a religious requirement. Over the years, some who have justified banning head coverings have contended that Muslim law does not require them. The fact that many or most of those making this case are non-Muslims adds insult to injury: not only will we argue that we don’t want you wearing your religious garb, we will go so far as to argue that you can’t even interpret your religion correctly.
Aside from the principle of the matter, the nuts and bolts of the proposed law guarantee confusion and offence. The bill grandfathers existing employees, meaning that a currently employed teacher who wears some form of religious accoutrement will be free to continue doing so, but a new hire would not. More bizarre is that, if they were to receive a promotion – from teacher to vice-principal, say – the grandfather clause would be removed, and so would the religious article. The opportunities for mayhem abound.
Ostensibly, the bill, which is really the culmination of years of discussion around “reasonable accommodation” and similar concepts in Quebec society, is intended to preserve the importance of Quebec culture. Understandably, as an undeniably distinct cultural and linguistic minority vastly outnumbered by anglophone North Americans, Quebecers are vigilant in preserving their uniqueness. But it is tough to discern any substantive advantages this bill will grant to Quebec’s distinct culture other than to underscore assumptions of intolerance and insularity. The genuine intent of the law – and the larger ideology that drives it – is to encourage assimilation into a dominant (French, nominally Christian) population. In a visit to France last year, Legault didn’t mince words. He wants a Quebec that is more “European.”
Many Canadians outside Quebec accept that some accommodations are necessary to save what makes Quebec unique. We see this as something apart from the xenophobic nationalisms sweeping Europe. But what is inherent in Quebec society that would not also be found in Swiss or Finnish or Hungarian society to justify banning symbols of different cultures? If Quebecers have a right to “protect” their cultural identity through admittedly discriminatory laws, why wouldn’t Polish and Ukrainian people?
Ultimately, a law preventing religiously observant people from displaying the evidence of their faith will not strengthen or save pur laine Quebec society, unless by doing so it discourages such people from coming to Quebec in the first place. And there’s the key to understanding this bill.
One of the first steps Legault took as premier was to reduce Quebec’s share of immigrants by 20%. This was about the same time he went to Paris and declared he wanted more migrants who are European. With this in mind, the secularism bill is probably less about the people who are already in Quebec than about sending a message to those considering a move there. The bill says stay away, Quebec does not welcome you.