It’s not often that we Canadians get to see a show trial in progress. But we’re watching one now — namely, the public hearings on the Quebec government’s proposed Bill 60, popularly known as the Charter of Quebec Values, which would ban religious symbols in the public service to ensure visible neutrality with regard to religious convictions and visible conformity to (Quebec-style) gender equality.
The outcome of the hearings already is known: Bill 60 will remain unchanged. The show trial’s purpose is to keep Quebec’s francophone populace continuously distracted and tribally pumped until an election is called. Since they cannot win on the usual grounds of good economic management and governance, the Parti Québécois are gambling on fear and ethnic pride as their ticket to power. It could pay off. A new Leger Marketing survey for QMI Agency suggests the PQ is, for the first time, “mathematically in position to win a majority government since their [minority] election [win] in 2012.” Nearly half the respondents reported themselves pleased with the Charter, with support much higher among francophones than other groups.
With hostility to the bill largely centralized in multicultural Montreal; with the anti-PQ vote split between two parties (the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec, both emanating equivocal, somewhat panicky vibes on the Charter); and with voting power weighted to Quebec’s homogeneously francophone regions: The reality is that Quebec may, through an impeccably democratic process, become a province where self-identifying members of faith communities are second-class citizens when giving and receiving public services.
The rationale for the Charter is similar to the thinking behind draconian language laws such as Bill 101. Quebec is a distinct, but vulnerable society, René Lévesque believed, with French the vehicle for Quebec’s unique culture; therefore the “face” of society must be French, with English minimized, to preserve the culture. Following the same logic, overtly expressed religious faith now is perceived as threatening to the secular character of Quebec culture. Bill 60 would neutralize the “face” of Quebec with regard to religious belief, especially belief in traditional gender roles.
This is poor reasoning. People may love one language, yet speak many, according to their situation. Language is a means to personal, cultural and transactional ends. But settled convictions are ends in themselves and never interchangeable. So unless a faith symbol actively harms the civic environment, there can be no democratic reason to ban it. (I will concede, however, that the actual covering of one’s face — as opposed to merely one’s hair — is psychologically threatening, and does impede social reciprocity. If the Liberals’ fully justifiable Bill 94, banning face-covering in public services, had been passed, the PQ’s Bill 60’s appeal would have been sharply diminished.) Bans on jewellery and head cover not only change the relationship of individuals to the state; they also transform relations between citizens, creating a hierarchy of civic worthiness in the minds of all, according to which participation in Quebec culture is predicated on the trivialization of faith.
Because Quebec’s elites are so hostile to their own Catholic cultural roots (even though cynical politicians have no problem exploiting their former faith’s religious symbols as protected “heritage” symbols in exploiting residual nostalgia amongst older voters), they have lost the capacity to understand faith’s character and its collective resilience when under threat. Politicians should realize that promoting secular conformity through voluntary submission to moral authoritativeness would be a far better path, in the end, than demanding sullen compliance through political authoritarianism.
Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the three main religions targeted by the Charter. Adherents of all three who wear faith symbols are precisely those representatives of their religions who are most likely to find meaning in sacred traditions and conventions deriving their authority from the pre-state past, and for whom sexual restraint and the family are the pillars of civilization.
How likely are these groups to accept humiliation from political masters whose own “culture” is based in rejection of the religion that created it? How likely are they to respect a “gender equality” ideal that is accompanied by indifference to marriage, widespread family breakdown and high abortion rates? Indeed, to any person of real faith, Quebec’s aggressive secularism seems more a source of cultural malaise than a strength.
It’s clear that Bill 60 is a transparently coarse, fear-mongering appeal to the least rational, most xenophobic elements of Quebec’s population. It may come to pass (even if it involves over-riding constitutional barriers with the Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding clause). But if that happens, the PQ may be surprised at the depth of the backlash.
[Barbara Kay is a National Post columnist and a CIJR Academic Fellow]