Quebec, so the myth goes, is the atheist’s last refuge. Nowhere else in the country has the revolt against the Church been so pronounced or so ingrained into the collective mindset of its people. Like “Duplessis” and, often, “federalist,” religion is une vulgarité—a dirty word.
Strange, then, that Quebec is the only place religion has cropped up as an issue in the campaign. Two Conservative candidates, Jacques Bouchard and Rodrigo Alfaro, are members of Quebec-based Pentecostal churches whose members believe humans roamed the earth alongside the dinosaurs 6,000 years ago—which earned the pair some mocking press coverage. Still, the evangelical movement has an undeniable presence: there are roughly 75,000 Quebec evangelicals, and some 3,000 people attend the weekly Sunday service at Église Nouvelle Vie, Bouchard’s South Shore Church. Luc Harvey, the Conservative member for the Quebec City region of Louis-Hébert, has actively courted the Pentecostal vote in his region—all the better to improve on his narrow victory in 2006.
Another Conservative candidate, Nicole Charbonneau Barron, is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization perhaps best known for its notorious turn in The Da Vinci Code. Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe tried to make her faith an issue, saying it was an example of the Conservatives’ “narrow-minded ideology.”
In Quebec, Opus Dei is tiny, numbering less than 250; its mainstream practising Catholic brethren, however, is anything but. According to Université de Montréal researcher Christophe Talin, there are about 950,000 Catholics in the province who attend church at least once a month—nearly 13 per cent of the total population, which is overwhelmingly Catholic itself, if mostly in name.
Notions to the contrary aside, Talin says, religion is alive, well, and politically active in Quebec. Even stranger: despite the Conservatives’ family-oriented platform designed to attract churchgoing folk, it’s the Bloc Québécois—a left-wing party whose leader is a former Communist and avowed pro-choice atheist who often rails against the Church’s encroachment in public affairs—that does surprisingly well with the faithful.
In 2000, Talin concluded, roughly 50 per cent of Quebec’s practising Catholics voted for the Bloc. Though much has changed in eight years, notably the formation of the Conservative party and its recognition of la nation Québécoise, that support has remained relatively stable.
“There was very little change between 2004 and 2006, so it’s fairly safe to say that 2008 will be similar,” Talin says. “It’s a contradiction, but the political leader who is the most atheist and the farthest to the left in fact has a lock on a large chunk of the religious vote in Quebec.”
At first blush, the Bloc is a strange haven for practising Catholics. The party is staunchly pro-choice and in favour of both assisted suicide and stem cell research. It counts Réal Ménard, one of the few openly gay MPs, among its numbers. According to Life Site News, a Toronto-based pro-life group, not a single Bloc member opposed abortion pioneer Henry Morgentaler’s Order of Canada nomination. Moreover, religious voters tend to be older and more conservative than their atheist counterparts. Yet Jean-Claude Leclerc, Le Devoir’s religion correspondent, says the Bloc’s stance on fighting poverty has tilted Quebec’s Catholic support leftward. “That’s the most dynamic element of the religious vote,” he says. “It’s little-known, but many people in the religious community are involved, along with members of the clergy. Religious people tend to have a greater sense of civic duty than others.”
And then there’s sovereignty. Though the Bloc has, out of a matter of political necessity, ceased talking about another referendum, it is still a sovereignist party, and in a way, Talin says, it’s taken on the traditional role of the Catholic Church in Quebec: as a vanguard against meddling outside (read: English) influence on the province. “Yes, the Bloc is a little bit to the left, but sovereignty remains one of the biggest influences in the party, and it goes beyond the traditional right and left,” Talin says. “There are people on the right but who vote Bloc because they are sovereignist.”
Fr. Raymond Gravel can certainly attest to this. An ordained Catholic priest, Gravel was a Bloc MP until he resigned in September, and is in many ways representative of the party’s unique stance on religious matters. Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and a former street worker in Montreal’s gay village, Gravel was nonetheless hugely popular with his Catholic base, thanks to his championing of seniors’ rights—and for being unapologetically sovereignist. “All the parishes where I’ve worked have been almost totally sovereignist,” Gravel says. “It’s the same for the priests, to the point where I never had a problem speaking about Quebec sovereignty at churches during elections.”
There’s still a big Catholic vote beyond the reach of the Bloc Québécois. The trouble with the other federal parties, at least according to one of the province’s better-known religious advocates, is that they haven’t gone far enough in attracting it.
“The parties tread too lightly on certain subjects—they’re scared,” says Jean Tremblay, mayor of Saguenay and outspoken proponent of Biblical morality. “Take abortion, homosexuality, marriage. The parties barely talk about them. They’re scared of losing a share of the vote. That prevents certain ideas from crystallizing.”
Quebecers’ faith on many fronts may have wavered; certainly, the rise of the Conservative party was the stuff of federalist dreams not three years ago. Despite appearances, though, it seems Quebec’s two dominant religions, Catholicism and sovereignty, aren’t nearly as dead as they may seem.