Skip to main content

It wasn't that long ago that Prime Minister David Cameron called for a 'muscular liberalism' to solve the multicultural problems that ailed Britain. Hot on his heels, Germany's Angela Merkel called multiculturalism a failure.

Look not at its French language or historic cobbled streets – here is proof that Quebec is the most European of Canada's provinces. Even major public intellectual Charles Taylor, a philosopher who is no stranger to multicultural controversy, couldn't restrain his incredulity: "I didn't think the government would go that far," he told a Radio-Canada interviewer.

But how far exactly has the Quebec government gone with its proposed Charter of Quebec Values tabled in the National Assembly next month? Religious symbols of all kinds will be banned not only from being worn by state employees in positions of authority, but also from daycare workers, public teachers, hospital employees and civil servants. People receiving government service will need to have their faces uncovered. The perception is that removal of public religious symbols will make these institutions more neutral, more fair minded, and that those receiving service will feel less threatened.

What's at stake isn't always clear because of the feeble understanding of symbol and, more seriously, the major crisis of the meaning of religion. Those who, for example, seriously wonder aloud why Muslims are so cantankerous about their headscarves, Christians about their crucifixes, Sikhs about their turbans and so forth usually misunderstand how religion works. Its physical and ritualistic nature is not a peripheral display of interior reflection; its practices are the thing itself that makes the religious person. Saba Mahmood talks about her own surprise studying in Egypt with the women's pietist movement, discovering that the headscarf is not a showpiece for modesty, it is a practice by which people become more modest. Kevin Flatt, in a bracing new study of the United Church in Canada, argues the same in his book After Evangelicalism: defining evangelical status by 'belief' gets the picture badly wrong – far better to talk of 'evangelical practices.' Habits make virtue, repeated gestures become postures. Aristotle knew it. We've forgotten.

So when a provincial legislature talks about banning practices it is talking about suppressing, maybe even changing, religions. It demands not merely political revolution, but theological revolution. These are powers that the state in Canada, the state anywhere, does not have.

This is a kind of secularism, certainly, but not the best kind, and not the sort that should be associated with Canada. It's called laïcité, a kind of reimported civil religion which suppresses all other identities – religious or otherwise – beneath that of the state. It is a recipe for violations of fundamental freedoms, in our Constitution Act as well as our Charter, which fully baked will bring unrest and violence.

That's what makes a world-class academic like Charles Taylor lament: "It is something that we would expect to see in Putin's Russia. It's exactly the same sort of thing, that people cannot publicly be seen to be gay, they cannot have a gay pride parade, because it's against the law. In that type of society, we expect to see that, though we protest strongly and properly. But in a liberal society like ours, it is almost unthinkable."

How far does the Charter go? It inverts the first, and arguably greatest, Judeo-Christian command: you shall have no other gods before me. But this time it is no deity cloaked on smoky Mt. Sinai commanding obedience, it is Premier Pauline Marois. Points to the Premier, she has staked her place in history in possibly the great debate of our time. Quebec will wish she'd chosen a different side.

Robert J. Joustra is an assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College.

Interact with The Globe