On March 28, Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s minister for “Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusiveness”, submitted Bill 21 in the provincial National Assembly. The bill introduced by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government would, among others, bar civil servants in a position of ‘authority’, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers, teachers and school administrators from wearing visible and non-visible religious symbols at work.
Bill 21 – “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State” – lists dozens of government positions in which people would not be allowed to dress reflecting their faith. The bill includes provisions to amend the Quebec Charter of Rights and to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms – which allows Parliament or provincial legislatures to temporarily override certain portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to preserve the law from legal challenge. Francois Legault, current premier of Quebec and Leader of La Caq, has said he hopes the law and the motion will enshrine the separation of church and state and end 15 years of acrimonious debate about the place of religion in Quebec.
Separating church and state
The place of religion in public life in Québec has presented a longstanding challenge, in a province which has always defined itself through its linguistic and cultural difference from the rest of Canada and the United States. While Anglophone Canadians tended to be majority Anglican or from other protestant denominations, the Francophone inhabitants in Québec tended to be overwhelmingly Catholic. Religious difference, therefore, constituted an additional signifier of difference, along with linguistic difference and a French cultural background, which set Québec apart from the rest of Canada.
The overwhelming and rapid decline of the role of religion in Québec public life and the sharp reduction in religious practice in the 1960s and 1970s – part of what was called the “Quiet Revolution” – did not, however, erode the cultural signification of Catholicism as a key characteristic of Québec as a “distinct society.” The notion of Québec “laïcité”, therefore, rests on this paradox which follows from the Quiet Revolution: an overt resistance to any acceptance of religion in public life, combined with a continued attachment to a “cultural” notion of Catholicism as defining Québécois identity.
Bill 21, in many ways, while rejecting some elements of overt Catholic presence in political life (for instance, through an accompanying bill which would mandate removing the large crucifix from the chamber of the National Assembly and its “showcasing” elsewhere in the Parliament building), continues the longstanding distrust of overt religiosity.
Furthermore, as Charles Taylor – co-author of the 2008 Government of Québec report on the question – notes, this ban, under the cover of full equality, conforms closely to Catholic religious practice, which does not require visible religious signs, while significantly constraining other religious practices.
The bill was quickly lauded by the executive of La Meute – a Québec-based group founded by two Canadian Armed Forces veterans, described by Martin Geoffroy as reinterpreting “First Nations, Neo-pagan, and Christian spiritual traditions” to develop a new cultural identity for Québécois. – which took credit for prompting the introduction of such legislation. In response Francois Legault, the Québec Premier and leader of the CAQ – which was elected last autumn in part on pledges to restrict immigration and impose a secular charter – sought to distance himself and his party from the radical right group known for its populist, nationalistic-identitarian, anti-migrant, and Islamophobic stances.
The CAQ’s framing of the issue of “laïcité” as a pressing problem and a core tenet of Québec identity, which (Muslim) immigrants are threatening, echoes many of the rhetorical tropes of La Meute and other far-right groups.
Not so quiet a revolution?
While both La Meute and the CAQ have explicitly rejected any connection between them, they share a common discourse. During the electoral campaign, François Legault accused La Meute of “bordering on racism” and officially rejected their support. Yet, the CAQ and La Meute allw themselves to be the vehicle of many similar tropes and discursive strategies. On the subject of secularism, Legault thus accused the Liberal party of hiding a flagrant problem, which corresponds largely to La Meute and other far-right groups’ assertions that they are responding to a tangible crisis.
Similarly, the CAQ, by making a spurious distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigration, repeats multiple talking points used by La Meute. The leader of La Meute highlighted the connection further, by noting during the electoral campaign that 8 of their recommendations were taken from the CAQ’s program. Now that Bill 21 has been submitted, the La Meute went even further by praising François Legault on their official Facebook pages and quoting him in their banner photos on Facebook.
Invoking the “Great Darkness” – the period preceding the Quiet Revolution – where progress was halted by the power of the Catholic Church, La Meute (which claims to be a nationalist but center-left organization) routinely frames its opposition to Muslim immigration as the logical continuation of the tradition of laïcité and shedding of religious control over the state. By exploiting images and symbols most often diverted from their original meanings, Islam is thereby presented as a totalitarian ideology inherently incompatible with secularism and the progress accomplished during the ‘Quiet Revolution.’ François Legault, meanwhile, presents the banishing of religious symbols from large swathes of public life – in effect, anything that remotely touches any governmental service – as a core element of Québec identity: “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit” - “In Québec, this is how we live.”
François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec have repeatedly emphasized their rejection of La Meute as a racist organization. Nevertheless, the CAQ’s framing of the issue of “laïcité” as a pressing problem and a core tenet of Québec identity, which (Muslim) immigrants are threatening, echoes many of the rhetorical tropes of La Meute and other far-right groups. The CAQ and La Meute may not be headed for the same destination, but for now, they are fellow travellers for at least part of the journey.
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