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.