Peter White is a former principal secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney, and also a former assistant to premier Daniel Johnson (Sr.) of Quebec.
Let me say to all the bien pensants in the “Rest of Canada” who make up the growing chorus of critics of Quebec’s Bill 21 provisions on the wearing of religious symbols by certain public servants: Have a care. You are playing with fire, and your knee-jerk reaction to legislation supported by a vast majority of Quebeckers risks starting a major conflagration that might consume our country.
First, you should actually read the bill. You should note its very narrow application, only to certain officials who must interact with the public, only while in the exercise of their official duties, and only to people newly hired in these positions.
Second, you should remember that most of Quebec’s French schools, colleges and universities were largely operated by Roman Catholic teachers and administrators, all of whom wore religious garb, until the 1960s. When I attended law school at Laval University from 1960-63, the rector was future cardinal Louis-Albert Vachon, who was named to the Order of Canada and the National Order of Quebec. He is the last of an unbroken line of distinguished clerics to hold this position. Quebec’s famous and progressive Quiet Revolution was largely about escaping the influence of the Catholic Church in this and many other areas.
Third, you should pay attention to the increasing expressions of incredulity, anger and outrage in Quebec’s French-language media over your virtue signalling and self-righteous condemnations of a legitimate act of Quebec’s National Assembly, which is legislating well within its constitutional authority.
And fourth, you should consider that on Oct. 21, 33 per cent of Quebeckers (555,000 more than in 2015) voted for the Bloc Québécois, which had almost disappeared until resistance in the Rest of Canada to Bill 21 reignited the long-dormant but always smouldering view among many Quebeckers that they can never be fully understood and accepted in this country. From there, it is but a step, if Quebec Premier François Legault should ever conclude that public opinion demanded it, to a third referendum on Quebec independence.
It is argued that those likely to be most affected by Bill 21 are some Muslim women living in Quebec who may be forced to choose between a possible future career in Quebec’s public service and their desire to wear religious garb at all times, and that the bill is therefore racist and specifically directed against devout Muslims.
One might ask whether such women would agree to have their own children taught by nuns or priests or monks wearing Roman Catholic religious symbols? Or whether such devout Muslim women might not agree, as did many devout Roman Catholic teachers in Quebec after the secularization of Quebec’s education system during the Quiet Revolution, to forgo wearing religious garb or symbols during working hours in order to be hired in future for certain public-service jobs?
I was raised and educated largely in Quebec. I lived for 20 years in London, Ont., and 10 years in Banff, Alta. I still have family in both places, as well as in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. I have worked in the Premier’s office in Quebec City, the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa and for a large media corporation in Toronto. For the past 15 years, I have lived in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It cannot be said that I am ignorant of my country.
I warn the Rest of Canada, in the words of columnist Richard Martineau writing on Saturday in Le Journal de Montréal, Quebec’s most widely read daily, that we are now suddenly on track towards a head-on collision. Mr. Martineau quotes the famous words of Quebec’s Liberal premier Robert Bourassa after the defeat of the Meech Lake accord: “Whatever we say and whatever one may do, Quebec is, today and for always, a distinct society, free and able of assuming its destiny and its development." We are once again shouting past one another in a dialogue of the deaf. Will Canada accept Quebec as it is, or persist in interfering in Quebec’s internal affairs of which it is largely ignorant? Or will Quebeckers conclude, once and for all, that they are not welcome in this country and must reluctantly leave it?
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