One of the beautiful oddities of Quebec’s political culture is the importance afforded to the act of declaring one’s anger/dismay/disgust loudly and self-righteously in the form of a public letter. This is often the land of heart-on-the-sleeve politics and cri de coeur manifestos, where typically WASPish predispositions for things like restraint and nuance are loaded into a musket and blasted messily onto the page for everyone to read. We are a better society for it.
Few such letters have been as anticipated as Jacques Parizeau’s response to the Parti Québécois proposed “Quebec Values Charter”, which would among other things ban “conspicuous” religious accoutrements from the public sector. The former Péquiste premier hasn’t been actively involved in Quebec politics for nearly two decades; that the PQ looks in the rearview at Parizeau nearly every time it takes a defining stand says something about the continued sway of the grizzled old bear.
And, boy, has Parizeau taken a swipe at his party’s initiative. The letter, which serves as gleeful fodder for Le Journal de Montréal’s (paywalled) front page today, is a thoughtful and (yes) nuanced repudiation of the PQ’s values charter—and a surprising shot across the bow from Quebec’s reigning paleo-sovereignist. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the full text.
Parizeau walks us through Quebec’s post-Duplessis detachment from its church-dominated past. Schools and hospitals were scrubbed of the clergy, the National Assembly did away with the prayer, the public sector was secularized. “In short, the separation of church and state became a fact,” he writes.
It is a blunt dismissal of the current PQ argument, peddled by charter architect Bernard Drainville, which says the wearing of religious symbols is an affront to this cherished secularism. Just the opposite, Parizeau says. “Until now, the question of religious garb has never been the subject of regulation. Cassocks and headdresses disappeared, the priest’s collar followed without the need for regulation. Jews still wear their kippas, and certain orthodox religions wear their head coverings. The state was never asked to intervene.”
The next paragraph is better translated whole than described. “So why do we see such support for the banning of all conspicuous religious articles? I think there is only one explanation: Islam. And it’s understandable. About the only contact most Quebecers have with the Islamic world is the image of violence, repeated ad infinitum: wars, riots, bombs, the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Boston marathon; it’s the image of the subordination of women to man and the violence inflicted on her when she tries to get away from it: we don’t want that chez nous! In Montréal, it’s less the case, we get along. Elsewhere, the reaction is strong. In any case, when the government appears to take measures to limit the so-called “extremist invasion”, the first reflex is to applaud. This isn’t surprising.”
No, it really isn’t. What is surprising is Parizeau’s between-the-lines undressing of the rather crass Parti Québécois strategy: placate Quebec’s lily-white hinterland by playing to its worst fears; isolate and/or ignore Montreal, the only place in the province where Muslims live in any number; and play one off the other for electoral gain. This from the man who best incarnates the gut of deep blue nationalist Quebec—the man of “nous” and “money and ethnic votes.” With friends like these…
Parizeau isn’t the first or even the most eloquent sovereignist to rally against the PQ’s anti-Muslim tirade. Last year, former Bloc MP Jean Dorion excoriated the PQ for its secularist project—“thinly veiled intolerance,” he called it, that would “destroy our relations with Quebec’s biggest group of Francophone immigrants… Chickens do not vote for Colonel Sanders.” Dorion recently published a longer version of his essay. At the launch? None other than Parizeau himself.
Back to Parizeau’s letter. The former premier (correctly) points out how Quebecers as a whole, not just the haughty multi-cultis populating the island of Montreal, are largely dead set against anyone losing their job as a result of whatever might be covering their heads. Again, this is a straight shot at the PQ policy; though Drainville is loath to talk about it, enforcement of the proposed charter would mean anyone refusing to doff their overt religious symbols would lose their job, point finale. This is all the more true if, as La Presse reported today, the PQ reneges on the five-year opting out period for schools, hospitals and the like.
The former Premier suggests anyone giving or receiving a government service should do so with their face uncovered—which, you may recall, was exactly what the hated Liberals proposed in 2010. He further endorses banning the wearing of religious articles by police, prosecutors and judges. Again, this drips with symbolism: this proposal was put forward by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, also a Liberal creation hounded as weak-kneed by none other than Premier Pauline Marois herself. Oh, and he calls for a removal of the cross in Quebec’s National Assembly, that decidedly odd exception to the PQ’s wall-to-wall secularism drive.
Finally, the shiv: “Meanwhile, in Ottawa, all the parties overwhelmingly proclaimed their support for Quebec’s minorities. In effect, federalism is presented as their real defender.” Ouf. Federalism is forever a dirty word amongst Parizeau’s ilk, yet it’s the first time I can think of where he tacitly endorses the protections it affords. C’est le monde à l’envers (The world is upside down), as they say around here. Actually, no: when the very embodiment of Quebec ethno-nationalism says the Parti Québécois has gone too far in its scapegoating of religious minorities, the world seems that much more right.
The full text of Jacques Parizeau’s letter, translated into English:
To my knowledge, it is the first time in Quebec that there is an attempt to legislate a ban on something religious. Quebec has become a secular society, the separation of church and start was established, as was the neutrality of the state when dealing with the pious. All of this happened gradually. There is no doubt that it isn’t yet perfect. Regardless, this occurred without any of the crises that touched many other societies.
In a matter of a few short years at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, we slackened the control the church had on society. We removed the priest-dominated Council of public education and replaced it with the education ministry. We bought up the religious community’s hospitals and changed their administration. Most colleges were bought up as well, and turned into CEGEPs. Universities abandoned their pontifical charter. In the public sector, collective agreements were expanded to cover religious people. At the National Assembly, we replaced the prayer with a moment of silence. In short, the separation of church and state became a fact.
The neutrality of the state regarding religions also slowly evolved. Thus, in 1995, the government launched a subsidy program for the renovation of places of religious worship, including not only churches, but also temples, synagogues and mosques.
Until now, the question of religious garb has never been the subject of regulation. Cassocks and headdresses disappeared, the priest’s collar followed without the need for regulation. Jews still wear their kippas, and followers of certain orthodox religions wear their head coverings. The state was never asked to intervene.
So why do we see such support for the banning of all conspicuous religious articles? I think there is only one explanation: Islam. And it’s understandable. About the only contact most Quebecers have with the Islamic world is the image of violence, repeated ad infinitum: wars, riots, bombs, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Boston marathon; there’s also the image of the subordination of women to man and the violence inflicted on her when she tries to get away from it: we don’t want that chez nous! In Montréal, it’s less the case, we get along. Elsewhere, the reaction is strong. In any case, when the government appears to take measures to limit the so-called “extremist invasion”, the first reflex is to applaud. This isn’t surprising.
There has also always existed a secularist movement in Quebec that seeks to impose its strict rules on Quebec society, akin to the French model. Until recently, it didn’t have much political weight. But in appealing to the reflex of many people to impose France’s version of secularism, the proposed Charter of Quebec Values has had a certain success.
THE LINES MOVES
Quebecers are neither mean nor vindictive. When they are told that women might lose their job because, for religious reasons, they won’t remove their headscarves, three quarters of Quebecers say this isn’t right, according to recent polls.
Many of those who espouse a strict version of secularism are becoming deeply embarrassed when they realize that an opt-out clause will be granted to hospitals, municipalities, CEGEPs and universities, that teachers and civil servants will be forbidden from wearing a head scarf, but not students or politicians.
And what about Muslim women? To hear them, it seems many are divided on the issue. But a solidarity movement has come about to defend those who feel threatened and excluded from the charter. This is understandable. There is obvious concern among many immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, even among those recent arrivals to Quebec who are well integrated and totally Francophone, that the tensions and crises of their home countries will make their way here. And what is circulating on social media certainly isn’t reassuring.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, all the parties have overwhelmingly proclaimed their support for Quebec’s minorities. In effect, federalism is presented as their real defender.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
I think it would be preferable to limit the charter to an affirmation of the principles of the separation of church and state and the neutrality of the state in matters of religion. We must also maintain and perhaps better define the rules within the public service when it comes to reasonable accommodations for religious reasons, and make sure these don’t infringe on the principle of the equality between men and women. It is also necessary to maintain the rule that anyone giving or receiving a public service do so with his or her face uncovered (personally, I’d go farther than this.) As far as prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols, I think we should limit ourselves to the recommendations within the Bouchard-Taylor report—that is to say, apply these restrictions to police officers, prosecutors, judges and anyone who has coercive powers. I wouldn’t go further than this at the moment.
And the crucifix in the National Assembly? Let us hope that after discreetly consulting with the leaders of the various political parties next summer, the president of the Assembly places it somewhere else in Parliament, perhaps in the president’s gallery, where it was for many years. That way, upon the return from vacation, this issue will have ceased making waves.