OTTAWA—It has been described as the issue that might best illustrate how Quebec is distinct from the rest of Canada. Secularism, or laïcité, the separation of religion from government, has preoccupied politicians in the province for more than a decade, while elsewhere in the country, you aren’t likely to encounter it in the mainstream conversation at all — unless the debate in Quebec flares up enough for other Canadians to notice.
Well, consider it flared.
On March 27, in the latest bid to legislate a vision of secularism in the province, the Coalition Avenir Québec government tabled Bill 21, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” The legislation will ban public servants in a list of jobs from wearing religious symbols at work. This would include schoolteachers and principals, cops, judges, prison guards, Crown lawyers, bankruptcy registrars, the Speaker of the National Assembly, members of bodies like the labour tribunal, public inquiry commissioners, the provincial justice minister, and more.
The province has tried to travel this road before. The “charter of values” proposed by Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois government was seen by some as an intolerant effort to regulate hijabs and burkas worn by some Muslim women. The PQ’s Liberal successors pushed secularism legislation, too, with a bill that barred Quebecers from receiving and delivering public services, including when doing things like boarding city buses, with faces covered. It was passed but suspended in 2017 by a provincial court amid questions about how it would be carried out.
Now Premier François Legault is taking a crack at it.
His right-wing CAQ party won a majority last fall, promising to settle the question of laïcité. With Bill 21, Legault has invoked the Constitution’s “notwithstanding” clause to protect laws from being struck down by judges for violating the charter of rights.
He has trumpeted a compromise: it allows people in these jobs who wear hijabs, turbans or other religious symbols to keep wearing them at work, and only extends the ban to new hires. The National Assembly also voted unanimously to remove the large crucifix from behind the Speaker’s chair once Bill 21 is passed.
But that hasn’t satisfied critics inside and outside Quebec. The English-language school board in Montreal says it won’t obey the law. Religious leaders and protesters have slammed it as discriminatory for forcing Muslim women and Sikh men, for example, to choose between their careers and faith. And federal politicians have criticized the bill, including — perhaps most forcefully — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said: “it is unthinkable to me that in a free society we would legitimize discrimination against citizens based on their religion.”
Yet Legault and defenders of the bill underscore that it doesn’t single out any religion. Like their predecessors in power, the CAQ has positioned laïcité as the next step in the emergence of modern Quebec, a project that began with the reforms and uncoupling of the Catholic Church from public institutions during the 1960s. That period, known as the Quiet Revolution, is remembered in part for the awakening of a modern national consciousness in Quebec.
Beneath the surface, experts on Quebec history and culture say there’s a lot to consider in this fight over balancing rights of religious minorities with the desire for legislated secularism.
“This links back to this decades-old issue of Quebec asserting itself as a distinct society from the rest of Canada and the rest of North America,” said Bruce Maxwell, an ethicist and professor of education at the Université de Québec à Trois-Rivières.
“It cannot be understood outside of that context.”
The recent debate over secularism in Quebec is often traced back to 2006. That’s when the Supreme Court of Canada overruled a Quebec judicial decision that allowed a Montreal education board to bar a Sikh student from wearing a ceremonial kirpan dagger to school.
A media storm about “reasonable accommodations” for minority religious practices followed, including a much-publicized request from Orthodox Jews in Montreal for a YMCA to frost over windows where women could be seen exercising.
Facing this, Quebec’s Liberal government created a commission led by prominent intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their 2008 report dealt with sensitive questions about how immigrants can or should integrate with Quebec society, and how to accommodate religious practices while preserving an ideal of secularism. It recommended removing the legislature’s crucifix, abandoning prayers before municipal council meetings, and barring civil servants in positions of authority — like judges, police officers and prosecutors — from wearing religious symbols at work.
It said students should be allowed to wear religious attire like the hijab and turban to school, and that teachers, nurses and other public servants should be able to wear them, too.
The political debate on secularism has raged in the province ever since, and Bill 21 is the latest attempt to respond to this report.
“Every political party (in Quebec) has had a hand in trying to understand or reconceptualize secularism in Quebec,” said Melanie Adrian, an associate professor of law at Carleton University. “It’s a part of searching for that … Quebec national identity, and understanding Quebec within Canada and the struggle for independence.”
But as Adrian pointed out, Bill 21 differs from previous legislation. It spells out exactly which professions would be restricted from wearing religious symbols, and invokes the notwithstanding clause to protect it from being struck down by courts for violating the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights.
It also goes further than the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations by banning teachers, principals and others from wearing religious garb.
For Adrian, this brings up the bill’s main problem: it seeks to enforce a vision of society on individuals from minority communities, while potentially restricting Muslim women who wear burkas or hijabs from entering or advancing in public service careers.
“To what extent is it appropriate to use the coercive power of the state to limit what people are wearing?” she asked. “Bill 21 is insidious because it targets the advancement of people who choose to manifest their religious faith.”
Others argue that characterization is based on a misunderstanding of different conceptions of human rights in Quebec and English Canada.
“It’s there where we see the basic difference in culture … the idea of individual rights and liberties, and its reconciliation with collective rights and liberties,” said Yvan Lamonde, a professor of history and literature at McGill University.
“We (in Quebec) have a very different tradition. And I think that the basic challenge for someone in Toronto, let’s say, is to accept that there is such a difference.”
As Maxwell explained, this tradition is linked with the influence of France’s intellectual culture in the province. Going back to the French Revolution in 1789, which heralded republican government in the country, there have been prominent arguments in French culture for the importance of ensuring the state is free from religion, Maxwell said.
“In French intellectual culture predominantly, it means keeping religion away from the state — protecting the republic,” he said. “So any kind of encroachment, including the presence of religious symbols in public institutions, is viewed as a threat to the republic … From that point of view, secularism is kind of a defensive stance.”
This differs from what Maxwell called the “Anglo-Saxon” conception of secularism, which prioritizes individual rights like freedom of expression and religion. Like Lamonde, Maxwell said this difference is key to understanding Quebec’s debate: some people, inside and outside the province, will argue that individual rights trump any majority desire to purge religion from public institutions; others will say secularism is important enough to infringe on individual rights.
“The debate over secularism is probably the clearest example of the clash of these two intellectual cultures,” said Maxwell.
Then there’s the history of Quebec itself.
A particular history
From the time of Samuel de Champlain, the Catholic Church loomed over Quebec society. It ran schools, hospitals and social programs — even influenced bedrooms. Priests would drop in on country kitchens to encourage families to keep making babies, said Maxwell, reciting a frequently heard anecdote.
All that changed during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when a “progressive liberation” from the church began in earnest — at least, according to the widely accepted narrative, said McMaster University historian Michael Gauvreau.
“It’s a bit of a caricature of Quebec history, but it’s a very powerful one,” he said. “Part of the mythology and most of the history that’s taught in schools is that all the good stuff begins in 1960.”
That year, Jean Lesage’s Liberals won power in Quebec, bringing in major changes.The voting age was lowered to 18, new public utilities companies were created, and the government changed the law so that married women no longer had the legal status of children. This coincided with a generational shift away from the Catholicism that held sway for years.
“Events on the ground undermined the whole logic of keeping Catholicism in the public sphere,” said Gauvreau, author of the 2005 book The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. “People stopped going to church — a massive emptying out and loss of faith in Catholic institutions.”
In 1964, the seminal Parent Report recommended the creation of a public school system to replace the one run by the church. This was one of the changes that marked a drift away from Catholic authority, and the beginning of a serious debate around secular education that continued until denominational schools were severed from the publicly funded system in the 1990s, said Lamonde, the McGill professor.
That debate was “reactivated” by the Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2008, he said. “With their past religious experience, French-speaking Quebecers realized finally what was the cost of the confusion between politics and religion.”
Another aspect involves how multiculturalism is perceived in Quebec, unlike the rest of Canada, said Gauvreau. This dates to the Pierre Trudeau era, which coincides with the birth of the separatist movement, when the Liberal prime minister asserted a now-familiar vision for Canadian society that involved a mosaic of equally legitimate cultures comprising the same nation.
The concept never gained the same level of acceptance in Quebec, said Gauvreau, in part because of perceptions that multiculturalism diminished French Canada’s standing as a founding nation.
“Their idea was that Trudeau was putting this forward to head off claims for greater equality and autonomy for Quebec within the federal system,” he said.
Instead, a variation took shape in Quebec called “interculturalism.” This means that, while there are many cultures in the province, “there is a dominant culture that lies at the core of the society that other cultures are in reference to,” Gauvreau said.
The concept was also outlined in the Bouchard-Taylor report, which said interculturalism in Quebec emphasizes French as the common language of cultural interaction while being “pluralistic” and “highly sensitive to the protection of rights.”
Gauvreau argued that since that report, the secularism debate has become linked with the Quebec identity for many. “It’s a sense of that Quebec distinctiveness was once based around this Catholic identity,” he said. “Now it’s based around this secularist identity.”
So what’s next?
Bill 21 now sits in the Quebec National Assembly, almost certain to be passed into law.
It also contains a reference to the notwithstanding clause, the rarely used instrument that allows governments to pass laws even if they are found in courts to violate people’s charter rights. Bill 21 might have been open to challenges for breaching the right to religious expression.
But some legal experts say there are still avenues to prevent it from coming into effect. Kerri Froc, an assistant law professor at the University of New Brunswick, argues it’s susceptible to being struck down on grounds of sex discrimination, rather than religious discrimination.
“It’s very clear that the target is Muslim women,” Froc said, pointing to comments by Status of Women Minister Isabelle Charest, who in February called headscarves worn by some Muslim women “a sign of oppression.”
The argument in court would have to be that Bill 21 is especially discriminatory toward women, because it specifically bans some religious symbols that aren’t worn by men, Froc said. And if you establish the bill is discriminatory towards women, the notwithstanding clause can’t protect it, because the Constitution doesn’t allow it in cases of sex discrimination.
Regardless of what happens to Bill 21, the laïcité debate brings up questions relevant to people in the rest of Canada as well, said Adrian, the Carleton law professor.
“The rhetoric around minorities in Quebec is different from the rest of Canada and is wrapped up in the history of a minority in Canada thinking about its own status,” she said.
“It’s about how we want to understand each other … How do we regulate diversity?”
Bill 21, for all its contentiousness, is one way to answer that question.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga