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What’s there to fear about a ban on Quebec government employees wearing overt religious garb?

Posted March 21, 2014, at 8:15 a.m.
Last modified March 21, 2014, at 3 p.m.
Jane Martin
Contributed photo
Jane Martin

You may have heard about a debate in Quebec around secularism in government. The Parti Quebecois, the current party governing Quebec, along with the majority of Quebecois, want to pass a charter to make the Quebec government a religiously neutral space. It ostensibly already is, but the new policy would mandate that government employees not wear conspicuous religious clothing while on duty.

The proposed charter is not the handiwork of a small-minded, provincial people, as has been suggested by the Anglophone media. Quebec, rather, has been a leader in numerous social movements, including maternity and paternity leave, gay rights, $7-per-day day care and government-subsidized education. In contrast, Anglophone Canada’s more conservative policies on the environment and gun control, for example, have made Canada the target of international criticism.

Nor is the charter about xenophobia. Quebec has been a welcoming, open society for many peoples, including immigrants. (If in doubt, just visit Montreal, a cosmopolitan sea of diversity.) What Quebec will not stand for is social regression, especially in terms of gender equality.

Under the new charter, Quebec-government employees could not, for example, wear the hijab, chador or kippa while at work. Nor could they wear jewelry bearing a conspicuous religious symbol, such as a large cross. English-speaking Canada says that this is intolerant and racist — a surprising reversal for a group that criticized the Quebecois for generations for their “backwards” religious beliefs.

But Quebec, like Canada, is increasingly faced with religious and cultural practices that rub shoulders with government a bit too frequently for the Quebecois. These issues are on people’s minds, especially in Montreal, where a YMCA not so long ago frosted its windows at the request of religious men in the neighborhood who thought it wrong to view women working out — preventing nonreligious female gym members from seeing outside. Public pools are sometimes gender-segregated (including the staff) to accommodate religious demands.

Quebec’s insistence on a secular government is influenced greatly by its history: Catholicism had a strong, often oppressive, presence in Quebec government for generations. Schools and hospitals were run by religious institutions. Abortion and divorce were illegal. Pressured by the church, women often had 10 or 15 children, or more.

Things changed in the 1960s, with La Revolution Tranquille, “The Quiet Revolution,” when Quebec definitively rejected religion’s role in government, and progressive social movements could evolve. The French Canadians of Quebec began to think of themselves as maitres chez nous, “masters of our own house.” The term Quebecois was coined, allowing the Quebecois to proudly assert their unique ethno-cultural identity within a majority Anglophone Canada that, since the English conquest of New France in the 1700s, had too often been antagonistic toward them.

To the Quebecois, and to many vocal New Canadians living in Quebec, a religiously neutral government is a necessity that protects those traditionally targeted by religious conservatism. Should women, homosexuals, atheists and people seeking asylum from religious oppression, for example, feel confident that their interests will be protected by a government official who refuses to remove religious clothing while on duty?

The Anglophone reaction to the charter is like the Anglophone reaction to many policies introduced by Quebec — knee-jerk scorn toward an ethno-cultural minority that refuses to assimilate or go away. At the core, I believe, is English Canada’s displeasure over Quebec’s refusal to adopt its specific flavor of “multiculturalism” — an Anglophone national darling — adopting, instead, a more “intercultural” approach to diversity, one that attempts to integrate new Quebecois, rather than isolate us, and one that focuses on similarities rather than differences.

Perhaps more elementary, there is an age-old fear among Anglophones of French-Canadian agency, of a French-Canadian “threat,” a fear that has been passed on from generation to generation.

The fear seems unnecessary in a country in which eight of 10 provinces are officially English (only Quebec is French, and the other province is bilingual), and the Queen of England is the head of state. As Quebecois-Americans in Maine, my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were able to live their language and culture for longer than they would have been able to in many parts of Canada.

Since the charter debate began a few months ago in Quebec, an impressive array of supporters have emerged. Artists, intellectuals, lawyers and politicians of all backgrounds challenge mainstream Canada’s position. Why, after all, is it bad to reinforce the division between government and religion? The force with which Anglophone Canada opposes Quebec’s proposal seems suspect. Quebec’s perseverance amid the struggle is perhaps another example of its role as a leader in defining social movements. Or, perhaps, like the Franco-American community of Maine itself, of a culture and history that persist through the generations.

Jane Martin lives and works in Montreal. She moved to Quebec to research her French-Canadian heritage on a Fulbright scholarship at McGill University. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and a master’s in dramatic literature from Tufts University in Massachusetts. She grew up in Biddeford.

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