Symbology, identity, rights and la laïcité

So, according to a report in the Globe and Mail, Québec’s premier designate, François Legault, “says he will invoke the notwithstanding clause to work around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that his government can ban people in positions of authority in the province from wearing religious symbols.

This is, the report says, “long-standing party policy, but [it] barely came up on the campaign trail.” The report says that “The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) Leader said on Tuesday the plan would prevent public servants, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious garments such as the Muslim hijab and Jewish kippa while performing their public functions. He would also amend Quebec’s charter of rights to impose the ban … [and] … It is the second time in a month that a provincial leader has announced his intention to invoke the rarely used clause to override court rulings,” but former Parti Québécois governments used the notwithstanding clause over and over and over again in the 1980s, something that many people seem content to forget or ignore.

The Globe and Mail reports goes on to say that “The religious symbols ban is part of a package of policies meant to protect Quebec’s francophone identity, and includes a cut in immigration quotas and language and values tests for new arrivals. Failing the tests would result in expulsion, but only if Mr. Legault can get the federal government to go along … [and] … In his first news conference since his party was elected to government on Monday night, Mr. Legault justified the move to override any successful court challenge and the Canadian Charter’s protection of religious freedom. He said his government will have a transition period in which people who want to continue wearing religious symbols will be offered alternative jobs.

I, personally, believe that everyone’s personal beliefs, including their most deeply held 220px-Harjit_Sajjanqueenreligious beliefs, are a wholly private matter that ought not, ever, to intrude into the ‘public sphere,’ however one defines that, but I also recognize that we, in the liberal, secular West, have, traditionally, welcomed, even encouraged Christians to express their faith in public, although we have only recently accommodated the religious symbols and garb or other faiths. But I suspect that officials will have some difficulty in deciding what is ‘religious.’ Jews, for example, are required to cover their heads during prayer, although some Jewish sects say that everyone should always wear some sort of hat; Sikhs are, Sikh-Kirpan-an-article-of-faithgenerally, always required to wear their turbans ~ a highly visible sign of their religion, (whereas the kirpan can be worn under a garment and can be ‘sealed’ so that it cannot be readily used and the transportation safety laws in most countries allow a very short (less than 6cm) blade to be carried on aircraft) but at least one Québec judge has ruled that in certain circumstances, Charter rights or not, safety trumps religious rights. We have, for the better part of a couple of generations, since about 1950, gradually accommodated more and more people in our fast growing, wongs-5-exterior-1polyglot, multicultural cities, but the need to accommodate has been less pressing in small towns and rural areas … although some would say that the Chinese restaurant is a much as symbol of the Canadian prairies as is the grain elevator. But the rate of change, in Canada, since the 1950s has been very fast, especially since the 1970s when Canada opened its doors to new streams of immigrants non-traditional sources.

photo-trip800px-Emblem_of_Israel.svgSymbols matter to people … the cross is a symbol of 2,000 years of the advance of Christianity in the world, the yin and yang symbolize even older Chinese philosophical ideas, and the menorah is the equally ancient symbol of the Jewish people as well as of the modern state of Israel. Many people identify as Christians or Muslims or Hindus as much as being Albertans or Québecois … and we live, in the 21st century in an age of identity politics which some see as a real, imminent threat to liberal democracy.

We are, I suspect, headed for a clash of identities as a few million French speaking Canadians, living, mostly in Québec, try to maintain their own internal cohesion and identity as they try to survive in an ever growing sea of hundreds of millions of English and Spanish speakers in North America, alone.

The notion of la quebec-national-assembly-cross-c62laïcité is, in the main, a reaction to the unfamiliar (sometimes unwelcome) and even feared habits, customs and practices of newcomers … thus the large crucifix N-BM-hijab___Galleryin the Québec legislature (l’Assemblée nationale is part of the province’s cultural heritage, but a hijab worn by a police officer is, somehow or other, a threat to the province’s social cohesion. One must wonder what will happen next … will new, French speaking migrants from e.g. Haiti or Mali be offered extra incentives to blend in?


I know that’s more than just a little unfair … but it is, sad to say, one logical extension of identity politics.

3 thoughts on “Symbology, identity, rights and la laïcité

  1. Sorry Ted.

    I’m doing it again.

    My understanding is that “la laicite” is not a modern invention, unless we count the turn of the last century as modern, and that originally it was implemented in France by liberal-minded politicians as a means of controlling, if not expunging, the influence of the Roman Church in France. It was a policy of transferring education, social and health care from priests, monks and nuns to lay people, or the laiety and hence laicite.

    France had transferred her Protestant community to England and never developed a comparable lay society but it did have ongoing battles among Roman Catholics, National Catholics and an increasingly atheistic lay society. Republicans in France were the originators of la Laicite but it became national law in 1905 in the shadow of the Dreyfus affair and the Entente Cordiale with Britain. France essentially forcibly separated Church and State and expelled the clergy from their livings if not the country.

    Quebec, which had always been a stronger daughter of the Church than France, didn’t adopt a lay society until the Quiet Revolution in the 60s.

    In my view laicite is driven in part by, as you say, identity politics, but in part it is also a reflection of the lack of a period of the organic growth of religious toleration. After fighting the Reformation, and the developing separation of church and state, at home and abroad for centuries France and Quebec ultimately faced a stark choice between atheistic socialism and ultramontanist Roman Catholicism and nothing in between.

    In my view a part of the discussion in Quebec has to reflect the understanding that there is an honestly held concern on a large part of society that after years of having had no choice in religion that the Quiet Revolution can be reversed. As a result, for many Quebecers religion of any type has become anathema. Their religion has become atheism and is expressed in the policy of la laicete.

    Now, if CAQ is true to their roots, they will also ban the wearing of the cross by civil servants while on duty.

    1. I don’t disagree with your analysis … I’m almost always less sure of the importance of religions and of dissent than you and, again almost always, more sure of the role of economics in the affairs of men.

      As to the CAQ: they are on record, I think, as wanting to keep the Christian cross in the National Assembly, as a historical symbol, so

  2. In which case….they are playing, as you stipulate, identitarian politics and appealing to nationalist impulses.

    As to being sure about the importance of religion and dissent, I am sure of nothing. It is just my sense that religion has provided cover for the development of dissenting institutions in society as well as for the development of mechanisms for managing dissent.

    At the other end of the spectrum has been a strong urge on the part of some to argue for the necessity of inflexible, clearly defined and immutable truths.

    Cheers, as always.

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