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Published on: May 21, 2014
French Canadian Common Sense
Quebec Rejects Secularism

Another defeat for Kemalism: French Canadians roundly rejected a draconian new law preventing all state employees from exhibiting “conspicuous religious symbols” at work.

I like Canada. It has always struck me as the more sensible part of North America. (Perhaps this is already symbolized by the clipped diphthong of Canadian English—as it were, a matter-of-fact attitude “abbout” the business of living). It is perhaps unfortunate that history has regaled Canada with a negative identity, as the only grouping of British colonies in North America that did not join the United States. Both major ethnic groups in Canada have struggled with negative identities of their own: English-speaking Canadians have had to explain that they are not Americans, Quebecois that they are not English-speaking Canadians. The latter’s task has been easier. In “Anglophone” Canada one often has to search for the differences from America, while the distinctiveness of Quebec compels one’s attention (except in the most cosmopolitan areas of Montreal). But while Quebec remains robustly “Francophone”, many other features of its culture have gone through interesting permutations, not least in terms of religion.

Quebec culture was long defined as being linguistically French, religiously Catholic and socially conservative. The first component harked back to a (real or imagined) France before 1789. One can still get the flavor of this by strolling through the quaint streets of Quebec City. The motto of the province of Quebec, displayed on all its automobile license plates, is “Je me souviens”; the memory in question pertaining to this traditional self-image, perhaps also to the never-to-be forgotten humiliation of being looked down upon by the English-speaking elite of Canada. (A factoid worth mentioning: The genre known as “Polish jokes” in the US was called “Quebecker” jokes by Anglo Canadians.)

The province’s ancien regime collapsed with amazing speed in the so-called “Tranquil Revolution”, which began in the 1960s, gathered speed in the 1970s, and in many ways has been institutionalized ever since—though (too early to tell) it may now be running out of steam. Historians debate whether the “Revolution” was really as abrupt as it seemed, or whether the observed changes were the result of a slower-moving societal evolution. While still strongly attached to the French language and the idea of Quebec as a distinct nation (within or outside Canada), its culture was now to be defined as secular and progressive. It seemed as if Quebec, with a slight delay of some 170 years, was now going through its own Storming of the Bastille. In its republican nationalism, its social democratic welfare and, most dramatically, its secularity  (“laicite”), the new Quebec began to reflect the ideals of Leftist France. It was only natural that with this development came the desire by some, especially in the province’s elite, for national sovereignty away from Canada. Perhaps a high point of this separatist impulse came in 1967, when then President Charles de Gaulle exclaimed at a public event in Montreal “Vive le Quebec Libre!” (to the immense irritation of the Canadian government).

The effect of the “Tranquil Revolution” on the Catholic Church has been especially dramatic. The Catholic Church had been essentially hegemonic in primary and secondary education, and in the provision of health and social services. The provincial government set up a Department of Education, as well as a Department of Health and Social Services, secularizing most of the services that had previously been provided by the Church. Large numbers of nuns who had previously staffed these institutions continued to do so, now dressed in civilian clothes (even if some of them remained somehow affiliated with monastic orders). These institutional changes were reflected in individual beliefs and behavior. Catholic faith and piety, as measured in surveys, declined, as did attendance at mass. Most profoundly, Catholicism lost its place at the center of Quebec culture. It is probably fair to say that Quebec has become more secularized than any other province in Canada.

While all the political parties were affected by the “Tranquil Revolution”, the Parti Quebecois (PQ), founded in 1968, embodied most vocally all its major trends—separation from Canada (ideally full sovereignty), the dominance of the French language in public life, secularism, and a social-democratic welfare state. The PQ first came to power in 1977, and returned to power on and off after that (leaving the Liberal Party, a Canada-wide political entity, as its principal rival). The PQ in power pushed the “Charter of the French Language”, intended to ensure the public dominance of French (which of course meant sharp limits on the use of English). A much ridiculed language police forced business documents to have French versions (if they were not in French to begin with), and made sure that commercial signs and advertisements using both languages kept the English text confined to a precisely defined smaller size. This linguistic chauvinism had the unanticipated side effect that a considerable number of businesses moved from Montreal to Toronto. There continued to be a publicly funded English school system, but children only had access to it if their families had a verifiable “Anglophone” history. Other children were forced into the French system, including those from immigrant families classified as “Allophone”, that is being of neither English nor French background. Needless to say, the PQ continued to advocate separation from Canada (it sponsored two referenda about this which failed), and to favor measures reducing the public role of the Catholic Church.

Just the other day something funny happened on the way to the forum of democracy . On April 7, 2014, there was an election for the Quebec legislature (tellingly called the National Assembly, like its comparable body in Paris). [Another curious factoid: A large crucifix still hangs on the hall of the Quebec Assembly. The PQ resisted calls for this putatively illegal symbol to be removed, because “it reminds us where we come from.”] One of the main items in the PQ platform was a “Quebec Charter of Values”; in French it had a more unambiguous alternative name—“Charte de la laicite”. Its core feature was “a duty of (religious) neutrality” of all state employees (including public school teachers and those in health and social services). In fidelity to this “duty”, such employees could not exhibit “conspicuous religious symbols” at work (such as “overly large” crosses, Muslim headgear for women, Jewish men’s yarmulkes—this list was borrowed from France). It was estimated that 600,000 public employees not conforming to these rules could potentially lose their jobs. As was to be expected, a large number of religious groups (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) and secular human rights organizations vehemently opposed the Charter as a violation of religious freedom. There were large protest demonstrations, including some by women “conspicuously” garbed in accordance with Islamic modesty.

The election resulted in a fiasco for the PQ: It won 30 seats in the National Assembly; the Liberal Party won 70 seats. There were a number of factors involved in the PQ’s defeat: An unattractive top candidate, a wealthy businessman who enraged the social-democratic wing of the party; the prospect of a new PQ government launching yet another referendum on independence from Canada, a topic of less and less interest among voters. But both proponents and critics of the Charter agreed that it was a major reason for the outcome of the election: Quebec voters had rejected this brand of radical secularism.

Ironically, it is at least possible that Quebec is once again following in the footsteps of France. The socialist government of President Francois Hollande had pushed through its National Assembly the law permitting same-sex marriages, unleashing huge demonstrations against it, led by but not limited to Catholics. Again, there were other factors involved in this outburst of anti-government anger—the dismal failure of Hollande’s economic policies; probably also the way in which his erotic adventures evoked ridicule (about the worst thing to happen to a politician). But it is plausible to think that the law on same-sex marriages was a factor too. At any rate, the new socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls seems to think so. When he was minister of the interior, he had been instrumental in pushing this law. He now calls for a “calm dialogue” with Catholics. Could it be that laicite has gone too far even in the country that invented it?

In my post last week I discussed the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is constitutional to have prayers opening public town meetings, even if the prayers are mostly from one religious tradition only. The decision was seen as a rebuff to militant secularists both by those who welcomed and those who bemoaned it. It is interesting to compare this with what happened in Quebec. The secularist agenda could never succeed by going through the democratic process, which is why in the U.S. the only chance for secularists is to go through the federal judiciary, the least democratic of the three branches of government. By contrast, ordinary voters in Quebec rejected a significant piece of the secularist project, which is to cleanse the public sphere of any religious presence. Here for once, even in a society more secularized than the US, the regular democratic process defeated secularism. There is a more general implication here, beyond the North American situation: Almost everywhere democracy is bad for secularism. The reason for this is very simple: Cross-national survey data indicate that somewhere around 2% of the world population identify themselves as “atheist or agnostic”. That’s not much of a base for democratic politics.

show comments
  • qet

    Excellent! I say this as an agnostic who deplores the will to totalitarianism masquerading as “secularism” in the US (and, apparently, in France and Quebec as well).

    • Monkish

      There is nothing “totalitarian” about seeking to obtain the approval of the voting public for maintaining or establishing religiously neutral public services and schools. What is a mark of totalitarianism, however, is the misuse and abuse of powerful words with definite meanings to bend the worldview of the populace to conform to a sinister agenda and distort common sense and ordinary ethics (c.f. Arendt and Klemperer’s “Language of the Third Reich”). Not too far off from what you are doing in this comment…

      • qet

        No. Remember the proposed law that gave rise to Berger’s article. When the idea of religious tolerance, of pluralism, of fundamental fairness, of a commitment to a modern, secular society, descends to the point of outlawing the personal wearing of religious symbols; when the pursuit of justice is actualized in the legislation of a definition of “conspicuous”; then it is safe to say that this is symptomatic of a totalitarian impulse. Such a descent into the minutiae of ordinary, everyday life; such an impulse to set oneself up as arbiter of what particular colors, shapes and sizes of jewelry and apparel another may wear out of the house; when all this is accompanied by hysterical claims that to permit a person to wear a piece of clothing or jewelry outside of these State-approved dimensions and specifications is a violation of another’s fundamental human right–this is the very definition of totalitarianism.

        • Monkish

          If your conception of “totalitarianism” can’t make the distinction between French Laïcité which bans religious symbols only as they intrude upon the socialization of children in STATE schools and the exercise of government in PUBLIC administration and a surveillance state like that of Nazi Germany or post-WWII East Germany where a coercive state tried to regiment every aspect of human existence, private AND public, from religious dogma, to family life, politics and education, then I contend your understanding is deeply flawed. Perhaps you should read Arendt, or Walzer: totalitarianism and authoritarianism are not the same and coercion of the civic-Republican kind a million light years in theory and social effects from the type of social engineering practised by fascist or communist regimes. Distinctions are important. Neither the PQ nor any party advocating laicite is advocating a system remotely resembling this straw man of yours. You can dress it up anyway you want, it’s still a Reductio ad Hitlerum.

          • qet

            I have read Arendt and Walzer and many others besides. It is rather you who are practicing the reduction you accuse me of practicing. You have reduced totalitarianism to the finished form of Nazi Germany and(maybe) the USSR. Perhaps you can answer, at what point did Nazi Germany become totalitarian? 1944? 1938? 1933? Is it a requirement of a totalitarian state that its officials wear swastikas? Yes, distinctions are important, but if you mean to suggest that totalitarianism is a qualitatively unique state, a quantum level at which it is possible to arrive only by a jump from another level across a historical gap or abyss, then I disagree completely. I mean “–ism” as a tendency. At no point did I define Quebec as “a totalitarian state.” I maintain that it is a manifestation of a totalitarian tendency to regulate religious expression so closely as the Quebeckers were trying to do. Your own description of a religous symbol–a crucifix or a yarmulke in this case–as constituting an “intrusion” upon the “socialization” of children” to me reflects an attitude that, if shared by enough others, constitutes a field for the possible–possible–emergence of a totalitarian state. No, I am not calling you a totalitarian, but I am arguing that your apparent support for such a descent by “the State” into the minutiae, the interstices, of social life, indicates a less than optimal (in my view) respect for pluralism. And as for surveillance–well, I don’t know what is going on today in Quebec, but here in the US we are trying awfully hard, it seems, to build ourselves into a Panopticon.

          • messy1a

            The answer is the enabling act of 1933, which was passed by a slim majority of the riechstag after the building was blown up.

      • Bart Hall

        Two examples. One popular-culture, the other official. In 1989 in a major restaurant along the main route from Montreal to Quebec (la 40) the paper placemats were covered in jokes, two of which were… “Why did Hitler kill himself? He finally got his gas bill.” and “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? The pizza doesn’t scream when you shove it in the oven.”

        Even worse, back in 2005 or so armed agents and Provincial Police raided Jewish stores in Montreal, in the middle of Passover, stripping them of Passover foods, leaving many of Montreal’s 100,000 Orthodox Jews to fast for the rest of Passover. The offending foods were not labelled in french.

        Several months later Ha Mossad brought agents into Montreal, set up a massive weapons smuggling system, and instituted two years of intense community self-defence training. They do the same for any significant population of Jews they believe are potentially threatened with pogrom. Not-quite-full disclosure: I am an evangelical Christian who worked for my friends’ families as a Shabbas Goy and who speaks enough Hebrew to be polite.

        To this day the level of anti-Jewish sentiment is astounding.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    “Je me sourviens/Que ne sous le lys/Je crois la rose” apparently was the full slogan.

    Translated literally in English it means: “I remember/That born under the lily/I grow under the rose.” The Lily refers to the floral emblem of France and the Rose the emblem of England.

    So it means that while Quebecans were born French, they prospered as citizens of the British Empire.

    Paraphrased: they were born secular and dictatorial in control of all aspects of life/but they prospered as religious and democratic.

    • gabrielsyme

      Not so- the France that birthed New France was “the eldest daughter of the Church”; she loved the Faith and was vigourous in sending missionaries throughout the world, including the first to be martyred in North America. It was only after the conquest of Quebec that France fell from its loyalty to God.

      The Great Britain that replaced France as ruler over Quebec did not have the same fealty to the faith, but to its great credit, gave religious freedom to the Quebecois, and permitted them a large degree of self-governance and maintenance of their institutions.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Right. Using Kierkegaardian dichotomies, Quebec is not “Either/Or” secular/religious, but “Both/And” secular/religious.

  • Bart Hall

    I lived in Québec for thirteen years (1978-’91) and ended up speaking the language with near-native fluency. They have been unable yet to come to terms with the fundamental dilemma of their society, which is this: Because their birth rates have utterly collapsed their non-immigrant (québécois pur-laine) demographics are simply dreadful. Thus the attempts to *force* french on immigrants, especially the children.

    My sons were part of that. Because neither parent was educated in english in *Canada* (we were born in the States) the boys had to go to school in french. No problem — that’s a big reason we moved there. However, even though my sons had native fluency in french they’ve never *thought* nor behaved like québécois pur-laine. Québec is consequently faced with the intractable problem of either a) keeping their language but losing their culture because of millions like my sons who don’t “think” the right way, or b) remaining pur-laine (pure wool) and losing their language as fewer and fewer children are born into french-speaking families.

    Little wonder most of the province is cranky, volatile, and confused.

  • Monkish

    Mustapha Kemal was responsible for setting up a system (the Dinayet) that has, for almost a century, guaranteed generous public funding to Mosques and all the financial perks and job stability of a civil servant to Imams. So it’s high time Berger stopped labeling “Kemalist” all those US secularists who wish to sever institutional ties between the Church and State. It just makes him sound ignorant and monomaniacal. And at a time when the freedom of assembly, press and separation of power are being dramatically curtailed by an increasingly despotic Erdogan (all the experts agree that his party’s “moderate Islamism” is dead), it’s a little unsavoury to be banging on about a much diminished and peculiarly Turkish form of secularism.

  • amoose1961

    Wake up readers! Berger is not a scholar but a Frankfurt School disciple. He is a social marxist to the bone. He is intent on squashing all religions especially Christianity. His style as l have pointed out many times is predictable and he does not fail us in this piece.

    • amoose1959

      Beware of the Conditioners and their artificial Tao.

  • Gary Novak

    These are interesting issues, but when it comes to Canada, I find the most curious curiosity to be single-payer healthcare. I am not the first to point out that the VA scandal in the U.S. is drawing renewed attention to the problem of wait times in Canada. Universal coverage has a way of being Wertrational (ideological) but not Zweckrational (effective). Everyone is covered, but not everyone is treated on a timely basis. But while we’re in the waiting room, we can applaud the reported instance of French Canadian common sense.

  • 013090

    “It is perhaps unfortunate that history has regaled Canada with a
    negative identity, as the only grouping of British colonies in North
    America that did not join the United States.”

    Not true, you are forgetting the two colonies to the south, West and East Florida.

  • Bushman

    Le Kemalisme? What a turkey! You know they don’t have a clue when they compare Quebec with the middle east. Stick to burgers and fries and the American way, Peter.

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