Not long ago, Quebec was among the most intensely Catholic jurisdictions in the world. The church played a huge role in the province’s politics and social life; attendance at mass was extremely high; and large families (heeding the church’s mandate against birth control) contributed sons to the priesthood and daughters to the nunnery.
The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s changed all that. Quebec became more urban and outward looking, religious fervour declined, clerical vocations almost disappeared and the birth rate plummeted.
(Ironically, had the separatist parents of the 1960s filled their cradles with the same enthusiasm as their ancestors, they would have furnished more than enough young voters to win the independence referendum a generation later.)
Now, Quebec is one of the least religious provinces in Canada.
Recent provincial governments have signalled this shift with two pieces of secularizing legislation.
In 2017, the Liberals brought in Bill 62, “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality.” It attempted to forbid anyone giving or receiving a state service with their face covered. The law was clearly aimed at the veils and niqabs of the Islamic minority.
This law would have prevented some devout Muslim women from being employed as teachers or elsewhere in the public service, from applying in person for a driver’s licence or even taking public transportation.
The courts suspended this legislation.
Undaunted, the Coalition Avenir Québec government elected in October 2018 introduced Bill 21, “An Act respecting the laicity of the State.” It prohibits the wearing of religious symbols while acting as a public servant and, in certain cases, requires the removal of face coverings.
The provincial government invoked Section 33, the notwithstanding clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to shield the bill from court challenges for five years. Moreover, the province’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was amended to include a statement that the Quebec nation considers “state laicity to be of fundamental importance.”
Quebecers overwhelmingly support the new law, according to polls, but it’s difficult to find any media outlet in the rest of Canada in sympathy with it. The CBC and prominent newspapers speak of the bill “emboldening hateful beliefs,” “fostering xenophobia and sexism” and sowing “fear, division and the erosion of fundamental rights.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who barred anti-abortion religious groups from getting summer employment funding) said, “It’s unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.”
I’ve been a supporter of a healthy co-existence between governments and faith communities. I don’t mind if a City of Winnipeg bus carries a “Merry Christmas” greeting or if my mayor issues a proclamation saluting the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
But it would be foolish to ignore the growing public unease that has followed increased levels of immigration. Recent polling shows growing support for limiting newcomers and an earlier survey showed support for a Canadian values test.
There seem to be two approaches to the switch from a monoculture to a multiculture.
One has been mandated by the federal government since the 1960s: there’s no such thing as a ‘real Canadian,’ immigration threatens nothing and enriches everything, and there’s always room for one more pavilion at heritage festivals. To be fair, this has largely worked so far.
The other approach is the one being attempted by Quebec. In order to avoid clashes between groups, and to prevent identity politics that reward one group at the expense of others, Quebec wants to create a neutral public sphere where no one can signal any religious affiliation.
So when a motorist is pulled over for speeding, he won’t be confronted by a Sikh, a Jew or a Christian in a uniform. He will see only a police officer.
It’s an interesting experiment to see which of these approaches is better at producing lasting social peace.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.