View my bio

Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, August 23, 2013

Quebec's Attempt to Ban Religious Symbols: Doomed to Failure?

American colleagues are asking me, "what's going on in Quebec?"

The government of Quebec is about to propose a law that will ban all public displays of religiosity for any government employees.

This includes teachers, police, civil servants, DMV employees, etc.

Quebec, being traditionally Roman Catholic, discreet crucifixes will be allowed.

The provincial parliament in Quebec City, known as the National Assembly, has a very large
cross on the wall behind the Speaker's chair. This will remain because, as the draft language of the law states, it represents a historical phenomenon, not a religious one.

Reaction from English-Canadians and Anglo-Quebeckers has been quick and definitive: this law is an example of Quebec's parochial antipathy to multi-culturalism and tolerance.

So a cultural fight in the guise of a political dispute is on again.

A generation ago, draft legislation like this would have caused anxiety attacks in the rest of Canada.

These days, the threat of a French cultural domination inside Quebec provokes little more than a few articles in Canadian newspapers. After two referendums (1980 and 1995) in which the separatist cause was defeated, English Canadians have more or less reconciled themselves to the occasional outburst from hardliners in the Quebec government.

A far cry from before the "Quiet Revolution" in 1960 when decades (if not centuries) of rule by an elected, pro-Catholic, anti-union political class ended.

When a progressive Liberal Party came to power under Jean Lesage, Quebec had no government regulated education system. Education was "confessional": Catholics were educated in church schools.
Protestants ran their own system. Jews were considered part of the Protestant system and ran their own schools as well.

Today, Quebeckers are now the least religious people in North America. Their birthrate is the lowest as is the rate of marriage. Most Quebeckers live without "benefit of clergy." Churches are empty and are being sold to developers and local community colleges. Quebeckers are also more open about abortion and more pro-feminist than their English Canadian or American counterparts.

This is a remarkable and revolutionary switch in little more than a generation.

This obsession with integration is more than just linguistic. It takes as a model the concept in France of "laïcité" - the formal and legal separation of Church and State.

Like Quebec before 1960, France before its revolution in 1789, was heavily dominated by an aristocracy that used the clergy to keep peasants and workers in line.

The overthrow and execution of Louis XVI resulted in a prolonged period of violence, followed by the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte and a general war in Europe ending in 1815 with the defeat of France. Through this period and beyond, France remained committed to an anti-religious domestic policy.

Bonaparte negotiated a reconciliation with the Church in 1801. The Roman Catholic Church was recognized as the "established" church while the government insisted on rights for Protestants and Jews.

In 1882, the French government removed public education from the Church's control and created a national education system (much as Quebec would do 80 years later). The non-religious education system has done much in France and in Quebec to create a stronger sense of both secularism and national identity.

In 1905, France enacted a law that codified separation of Church and State, establishing the principle of "laïcité". And it did more. It declared the state neutral on questions of religion, guaranteed freedom of religious exercise, banned all public funding of religious activities, and outlawed the display of religious symbols on public buildings. It also confiscated all religious buildings built before 1905 as property of the French government.

While most Frenchmen and women still considered themselves to be Catholic, they were less and less willing to go to Church: ("croyant, mais pas pratiquant").

It took almost 120 years for France to arrive at this solution - one that is today being tested by the largest Muslim community in Europe.

Quebeckers have gone through a very rapid and similar cultural and political transformation, even as other Canadians perceive this as intolerance.

Attempts to ban the hijab, the turban and the kippa have more to do with a general anti-Catholic instinct. As one Quebecker told me, "The hijab reminds me of a nun's habit. Why would we want women to wear either?"

Ted Cruz (were he to speak French), would have a hard time getting elected in Quebec these days.



  1. Nu, are you in favour of laicite? Your column was a great neutral description, but what? You can't be a supporter of human rights and a supporter of this proposed law.

  2. I don't support laïcité as the PQ seems to define it. But I do support the separation of church and state.