Robert Calderisi is a former director of the World Bank and author of the forthcoming Quebec in a Global Light: Reaching for the Common Ground
The crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly has been hanging above the Speaker’s chair since 1936. It has also been hanging over the secularism debate in the province.
Last Thursday, the government announced it would recommend its removal. To many outsiders, the real surprise was that the crucifix was still there at all. But for Quebeckers, it was a striking reversal of a unanimous decision taken a decade ago to preserve this important symbol of Quebec’s cultural heritage. The announcement was consistent with the government’s Bill 21, which restricts the wearing of religious symbols by many of its employees. Critics see this bill as a resurgence of Quebec’s innate Islamophobia. But the truth is more complicated than that. The proposed law is both an expression – and betrayal – of Quebec’s basic values.
Quebec’s values are a blend of French and English influences. France’s commitment to the separation of Church and State dates back to the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1789) and culminated in a wave of anti-clericalism that led to the confiscation of all Church properties in 1905. More than a century later, this putting of religion “in its place” is deeply rooted in French culture. For decades, French government employees have been forbidden from wearing prominent religious symbols.
In 2004, France banned the Muslim headscarf in state schools and have recently considered extending the policy to university campuses. Other European countries have followed suit and the European Court of Human Rights has justified these bans on the grounds that communal harmony overrides a person’s right to religious expression. The one exception is Britain. In August, 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May chastised her former foreign secretary Boris Johnson for saying that women wearing burqas (the full veil) looked like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers”; yet even he was not calling for them to be banned.
In Quebec, until now, the marriage of French and British values and the restraining influence of Canada’s Supreme Court have prevented it from following in France’s footsteps. Even Bill 21 stops short of doing so. But it draws on two strong forces in the Quebec personality – a suspicion of religion after centuries of domination by the Catholic Church and a deep commitment to promoting the equal treatment of men and women. In 2013, 81 per cent of Quebeckers thought that gender equality should prevail over freedom of religion.
Unfortunately, the debate in Quebec has centered not on Christian, Jewish, or Sikh symbols but on the Muslim headscarf or veil. Many Quebeckers (including many Muslims) regard it as a sign of female submission and religious exhibitionism. But to many of those who wear it, the veil reflects a respect for tradition, personal modesty, a sense of fashion and even pure convenience.
Opposition to the Muslim veil is also linked to Quebec’s suspicion of multiculturalism, echoing concerns in France about creating cultural ghettos. Former Quebec premier Bernard Landry once told me that we need to stress what we have in common rather than what sets us apart. “Napoleon ended official anti-Semitism in Europe but told France’s Jews: ‘As Jews, you have absolutely no rights. But as French citizens, you have them all.’”
Like many Westerners, Quebeckers have grown wary of mass immigration but are less concerned about total numbers than about the cultural concessions they are expected to make. In 2007, when feelings about “reasonable accommodations” for religious minorities first flared up, the same proportion of immigrants (70 per cent) as Quebeckers in general thought the situation had got out of hand. More recently, in a May, 2018 poll, undoubtedly influenced by anti-immigrant views in the United States and Europe, 76 per cent of Quebeckers said that newcomers “too often impose their values and religion on us.”
Although racism is also a factor, the debate in Quebec is largely driven by progressive values rather than backward-looking ones. And Canadians outside the province should not regard it as an aberration. In fact, the qualities uniting Quebeckers – their common sense, courtesy, concern for the downtrodden, aversion to conflict, and mild nationalism – make them the most “Canadian” of all Canadians. But – like Brexit in Britain – the debate can bring out the worst features of our nature: our insularity, pettiness and insecurity. We must aim higher than that, reconnect with our long record of civility, and recognize the nonsense of preventing devout Muslims – and Christians and Sikhs and Jews – from teaching in our schools or becoming a judge.