Mark Twain once described Montreal as the first city he'd visited where "you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window." That's still true today; Montreal is liberally sprinkled with naves and apses. The difference between 1881, when Twain went to Montreal to secure the copyright on his works, and today, however, is that now if someone actually did heave a brick through a church window, there's a good chance there would be no one inside to notice.
That incongruity – Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals that abound in cities, towns and villages across Quebec, but which in almost all cases serve vanishing parishes – lies at the heart of the province's ongoing flirtation with militant secularism. The descendants of Roman Catholic French-speaking Canadians in Quebec have shed their deference to religion in a single generation, and, as the province's majority population, they are having trouble understanding newcomers who don't feel the same way.
The uproar over a ban on Sikh turbans in recreational soccer games is the latest symptom of this tension, but it is nothing compared with what may come in the fall when the minority Parti Québécois government unveils its proposed Charter of Quebec Values. If the charter is adopted in the form that many fear it will be, its enshrinement will mark Quebec's departure from Canada's well-established consensus on religious freedoms. Far from bringing the debate over the reasonable accommodation of religious minorities to an end, as its backers somehow believe, the charter could spark court challenges lasting years. Quebec is headed for a showdown unless political leaders there find the courage to challenge this ill-advised project.
The reasonable accommodation debate has been front-page news in Quebec since the terror attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent backlash in many countries against Muslims. A series of overblown controversies – a small town adopted a "code of conduct" that churlishly reminded immigrants that stoning women to death, female circumcision and other unlikely-to-occur practices aren't allowed in Quebec; a sugar shack removed pork from its menu to accommodate Muslim patrons – prompted the Liberal government of Jean Charest to establish the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, in 2007.
The $5.1-million commission held 31 days of hearings and released a report in 2008 that correctly concluded that Quebec was not in a crisis. It nonetheless made recommendations, one of which called on the province to declare itself secular. The idea caught the attention of the Parti Québécois, which has vowed to adopt what it has come to call the Charter of Quebec Values.
Premier Pauline Marois has said the charter will strip government life of religious symbolism, such as prayer and crucifixes in government buildings, and also bar all public employees from wearing symbols of their faith. But she has made an exception for the crucifix that hangs in the provincial legislature, arguing that it should remain because it is a cultural artifact from Quebec's past, and she has hinted that wearing a cross around one's neck would also be okay. This has left opposition politicians and cultural community leaders worrying just whose "values" will be protected by the proposed charter, and that it will be a discriminatory, divisive document.
It's worth stopping for a moment, though, and remembering the history at heart of the debate. For much of the past century, the Church was the dominant force in Quebec, running schools and hospitals, controlling universities, publishing newspapers and even helping to create the province's popular credit union. This control ended abruptly in the 1960s and is now essentially gone from Quebec life. The vestiges, such as empty churches and chipped crucifixes, are abundant but considered to be curiosities from the past. The province has meanwhile become one of the most socially progressive in Canada; it was among the first to adopt gay marriage, and it did so without provoking any backlash – unlike in France, whose aggressive secularism is sometimes touted as a model for Quebec, but where the recent adoption of gay marriage sparked violent protests by far-right, anti-immigration groups.
Quebeckers are proud of the fact they have separated a church and a state that were once interlaced more tightly than the stitching on a priest's cassock. It is an essential Quebec value. So what must they do to accommodate in others what they no longer wish to accommodate in themselves?
They already have the answer: Canada. The so-called Rest of Canada has gone through its own upheavals related to religious accommodation. The Mounties struggled 20 years ago with allowing its officers to wear turbans; the question of whether Muslim women can wear facial coverings in all situations, including during court cases, has been hotly debated and has still not been settled by the Supreme Court.
But Canada has for the most part arrived at a consensus in which the expression of one's religion is protected so long as it doesn't harm society's basic values. Canada's basic values are found in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms; as a society, it requires citizens to respect free expression, equality and due process, but it sees no harm in a public servant wearing a turban or observing a religious holiday.
This is where Quebec can find its answer. Judicially speaking, it cannot sprint off in a different direction from the rest of Canada without provoking court challenges, even if it does define its society differently. But it doesn't need to, either. The model is transferable. What could be more positive than a vibrant French-speaking culture that welcomes immigrants and accommodates their desire to wear turbans on soccer pitches while insisting on a progressive set of basic rights, plus a fluency in French? Quebec is largely that place today, and it is remarkable for it. This is the message Quebec political leaders should be spreading, rather than one of suspicion and worry.