The Sikh religion forbids religious face covering on the grounds that it subjugates the wearer. Still, religious freedom is an article of faith for Sikhs, so the four-member contingent from the World Sikh Organization of Canada saw nothing wrong in defending the right to veil one’s face in Quebec, where the province is in the midst of passing a bill that would ban face coverings of any kind when providing or receiving government services. Invited to the national assembly, the four planned to speak in favour of Bill 94’s unspoken target: the handful of Muslim women in Quebec who wear the niqab. They were stymied by their kirpans, the six-inch knives that baptized Sikhs must wear at all times. Ceremonial or not, the National Assembly’s security guards said they amounted to just that: knives. “They told us if we weren’t satisfied with their decision, there are people who you can talk to,” says Harminder Kaur, one of two Montrealers who made the trip.
Instead, the quartet walked out the front door and into what has become the latest flashpoint in the battle over the place of religious customs and practices, as well as Canadian multiculturalism, in Quebec society. In the days following the thwarted visit, the national assembly unanimously voted in favour of a Parti Québécois motion commending the security team’s actions—not for being good security guards, but because in denying the Sikhs’ entry they “upheld the principle of the state’s neutrality.”
According to Louise Beaudoin, the motion’s sponsor, the right to wear the kirpan, guaranteed by Canada’s policy on multiculturalism (and the Charter), doesn’t apply in Quebec because the province isn’t a multicultural society. She’s right, in a way: while this may be news to the nearly 250,000 permanent residents who have settled there in the last five years alone, Canada’s second most populous province has never officially endorsed the country’s multiculturalism policy.
This is as significant as it is surprising, given the increasing control Quebec has had over the past four decades over who settles within its borders. Unbeknownst to immigrants—and, it seems, other Quebecers—Quebec’s immigration policy has been to ignore multiculturalism in favour of a made-in-Quebec model called “interculturalism.” The term first popped up in a policy paper in 1981, and has been periodically bandied about by demographers, intellectuals and policy wonks as a way of differentiating Quebec from the rest of the country. (Beaudoin herself referenced it when alluding to the Sikhs who were turned away.) Suffice to say, it isn’t exactly well-known. “I’d never even heard of it until all this happened,” says Kaur, who has lived in Quebec for 22 years and is fluent in French.
This might be because defining the term can be a difficult feat; effectively, interculturalism is a “moral contract” between immigrants and Quebec society, in which both the host culture and new cultures are encouraged to exchange and participate—en français, bien sûr. Unlike multiculturalism, in which differences are sacred, interculturalism emphasizes the common link between all Quebecers, native-born or otherwise: the French language. “It’s the idea that we hope to get to the point where immigrants and people who are born here interact with each other in French. These repeated exchanges have the effect of integrating immigrants into society,” says Michel Seymour, a philosophy professor at Université de Montréal.
Amorphous as that may be, it’s apparently Quebec’s official policy. “It’s been like that for a number of years, I think,” says Renaud Dugas, spokesperson for Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil. Others have their own take on it: Beaudoin, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has said Quebec’s model of interculturalism is inherently secular, though that term is scarcely mentioned in key documents.
While its exact scope and status are debatable, proponents have long said the other model, multiculturalism, enacted by Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1971, is detrimental to the survival of the French language. “The view here is multiculturalism means the host culture isn’t any more important than immigrant cultures,” says Seymour. “Quebec society is fragile, uncertain, worried. It’s totally understandable that we’re in this situation. We are a tiny minority on the continent.”
Tiny and inconsistent, it would seem. The kirpan, of course, has nothing to do with language, and neither do face coverings. Yet even on secularism, the ground shifts. The Quebec human rights tribunal recently ordered the mayor of Saguenay to cease saying prayers before council meetings, and to remove the crucifix bolted to the wall of council chambers. Yet Beaudoin’s Parti Québécois, along with the governing Liberals, passed a motion in 2008 opposing the removal of a similar crucifix in the national assembly—placed there in 1936 by the Maurice Duplessis government as a monument to the bond between church and state. That crucifix, according to the motion, is part of Quebec’s “heritage.” Yes, a cross, much like a kirpan, isn’t always what it seems.