Quebecers rally to put secularism on agenda

Quebecers rally to put secularism on agenda

‘Bottom line,’ says Daniel Cere, a professor of religion and public policy at McGill, ‘it’s a problem with a new religious community, which is Islam’

By Marian Scott, The Gazette

March 20, 2010


MONTREAL – As demonstrations go, the small protest in front of the cathedral in Trois Rivières on International Women’s Day two weeks ago went almost unnoticed.

About 20 demonstrators with handwritten placards called on the Quebec government to stop accommodating religious minorities like Muslim women who wear the niqab – a face veil with a slit for the eyes.

It’s time to stop tolerating religious practices “that pollute our society and deny the principle of equality between men and women,” said organizer Andréa Richard, 75, a former nun and author of two books harshly critical of organized religion.

Richard called for a charter of “la laïcité” that would make Quebec an officially secular state.

Another demonstrator seconded the proposal: André Drouin, the former town councillor from Hérouxville – population 1,200 – whose 2007 bylaw banning the stoning of women sparked a furor over the accommodation of minorities and led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.

“In Quebec, 85 per cent of people don’t want religious accommodation,” Drouin, 62, a retired engineer who has been promoting his views to audiences across Canada, said in an interview this week.

Just a few short months ago, the idea of removing all signs of religion from the public sphere was confined to a vocal minority. But support for secularism – the belief that religion should be excluded from government and education – has never been higher in Quebec, a province that once deeply identified with the Roman Catholic Church.

On Thursday, Richard and other proponents met Parti Québécois opposition leader Pauline Marois and immigration critic Louise Beaudoin to put forward her views on a secularism charter.

“Quebec is ready for secularism,” said Richard, who founded a pressure group called Citizens of the World two weeks ago. People are tired of “accommodating this one and accommodating that one,” she said.

In recent weeks, disparate groups ranging from hard-line indépendantistes to long-time advocates of scrubbing every last trace of religion from the public sphere have joined forces to put secularism on the political agenda.

In the National Assembly, the PQ has hammered relentlessly at the Liberal government to adopt a charter of secularism.

On Tuesday, 100 intellectuals, including former premier Bernard Landry, sociologist Guy Rocher, writer Jacques Godbout and journalist Marie-France Bazzo, signed a manifesto in Le Devoir calling for Quebec to become a secular state where the wearing of any religious garb like a hijab, cross or yarmulke by civil servants would be banned.

The Charest government, in full retreat, has hardened its stance on minority accommodation.

Last week, Quebec Family Minister Tony Tomassi vowed to stamp out religious instruction in publicly subsidized daycares – one day after he said he had no problem with religion in daycares. The National Assembly followed up by voting unanimously for a PQ motion to ban religion from subsidized daycares.

In the wake of revelations that a niqab-clad woman was expelled from a government French class for immigrants, Immigration Minister Yolande James has taken a hard line against the face veil and promised guidelines on the wearing of such religious symbols as the hijab (head scarf) by public employees.

But for secularism’s true believers, like Daniel Baril, an organizer of this week’s manifesto and former president of the Mouvement laïque québécois, such measures don’t go far enough.

“Rather than dealing with this case by case, we need to affirm the secular character of the state,” said Baril, who would take down crucifixes from every public building in the province and ban public employees from wearing religious garb.

“Whether it is a kippa or a cross or a turban or a kirpan, public employees should not wear any religious sign, just as we don’t accept that public employees should be allowed to wear political emblems,” Baril said.

“When I go to a government agency, I do not want to receive a non-verbal religious message that I did not solicit,” Baril added. “Religion should not intrude in public services.” Such talk is alarming to Daniel Cere, a professor of religion and public policy at McGill University.

“It’s almost like ideological apartheid. It’s a very denigrating attitude toward religion,” he said.

Cere lamented that the government has backed away from the “open secularism” recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.

Its 2008 report proposed removing the crucifix from the National Assembly, allowing students to continue to wear the hijab, kippa, turban or kirpan in class, and banning prayers at city council meetings.

“The Bouchard-Taylor approach to secularism is one that is the most compatible with the best instincts of the Canadian-Quebec tradition,” Cere said.

However, the government’s recent hard line on accommodation of religious minorities is closer to the strict laïcité recommended by France’s Stasi Commission in 2003, which banned all religious garments or symbols in schools, hospitals, government and other public spaces.

For sociologist Rocher, 85, an originator of the manifesto on secularism, following in France’s footsteps is a logical progression from the Quiet Revolution. The secularization of Quebec in the 1960s ended “La grande noirceur,” when the late premier Maurice Duplessis governed hand-in-hand with the powerful Catholic Church.

“Bouchard-Taylor is dead,” said Rocher, who sat on the Parent Commission in the 1960s and was involved in setting up the CEGEP system in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“With open secularism, there are no rules, no guidelines,” he said.

Secularism isn’t anti-religious – it puts everyone on an equal footing, Rocher said.

“It would get us out of the ‘case-by-case’ approach we have now,” he said. “It has no political vision.” But Daniel Weinstock, a philosophy professor at the Université de Montréal who holds the Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political Philosophy, said that hard-line secularism tends to bolster the values of the majority at the expense of other groups.

“It’s the minority’s religious symbols that keep getting targeted for special attention,” he said.

People notice visible signs of other religions but tend to overlook their own, like a Christmas tree in front of city hall, Weinstock said. “They’re part of the oxygen that we breathe.” Weinstock co-signed a pluralist manifesto in January that warned that talk of cracking down on all visible manifestations of religion is fanning anti-minority sentiments.

Cere agreed. “Bottom line, it’s a problem with a new religious community, which is Islam,” he said.

Adopting hard-line secularism could lead to the closing of private faith-based schools and social-service institutions with deep roots in Quebec, Cere warned.

“If you get this kind of consensus about daycare, you wonder what the next step is,” he said. “I think religious education is going to come under attack.”

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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