Skip to main content

In the aftermath of the Quebec City mosque killings, one would think the political debate around secularism and identity would be kinder and more reasonable. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard was widely congratulated for his dignified behaviour, his call for unity, and for refusing to point fingers at political opponents or media who irresponsibly played identity politics over the past few years.

Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée appeared with Mr. Couillard and admitted some wrongs. Yes, he went too far last fall when he said a provincial debate was needed on the wearing of burkas in Quebec, suggesting you could hide an assault rifle under clothing of that sort. He already had admitted in the past that the infamous so-called "Quebec Charter of Values" promoted by his government had "poisoned" the debate on secularism in Quebec.

It would, however, take a full-time job to track the fast-evolving thinking of Mr. Lisée on the matter. After losing power, he repudiated the bill banning religious signs for public servants. Just a few months before, as a minister in the PQ government, Mr. Lisée wrote an op-ed in The New York Times pretending Quebec was having a "Jefferson moment," in its pursuit of secularism.

But politics, like gravity, adheres to inescapable laws. After a week of political kindness and introspection, Mr. Couillard tried to put the other parties on the defensive, by "reaching out" to them for quick approval of Bill 62, "an Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality." The small bill, an 18-section piece of legislation, states that members of public bodies have to exercise their functions "with face uncovered." This would also apply to citizens seeking public services. An accommodation can be made except for identification or security matters.

The bill also offers a vague framework for religious accommodations, be it for employees or school children. It should respect gender equality and other basic principles.

The bill does not go far enough for the main opposition parties, who pretend the legislation should settle once and for all every case of religious accommodation that comes up in the future. The perception that Quebec is under pressure for an incredible number of demands from religious minorities (read: Muslims) is persistent. But, a Commission of inquiry by two prominent intellectuals, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, concluded in 2008 that no such crisis exists. But the PQ, since its identity shift, has worked hard to cultivate the myth.

Not as hard, though, as François Legault, the nationalist-but-not-sovereigntist leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec. If we are to believe Mr. Legault, religious compromise risks diluting Quebec's identity, which is why Mr. Legault last summer was so concerned about the province's so-called burkini problem.

Still, Mr. Legault offered to drop his demand that a ban on religious signs for teachers be included in the bill. He asks, as the PQ, that the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations be included, namely a ban on religious signs for officers of the law – judges, police officers, prison guards, prosecutors.

"Let's legislate on what we agree on," Mr. Couillard said, not willing to strip any theoretical (for now) law officer of their rights to please the opposition.

Meanwhile, left-wing Québec solidaire accuses the Premier of "systemic racism" because only 2 per cent of job appointments by the Executive Council are visible minorities.

And, the shock-media commentators are back on track, playing down the very idea that Islamophobia exists in Quebec.

The worst case of hate crime against Muslims in the country's history has yet to inspire a more profound and painful conversation.

Interact with The Globe