Quebec's new religious neutrality law offers a special level of hypocrisy: Neil Macdonald

Quebec nationalists have always claimed that theirs is a civic, utterly non-ethnic, non-religious nationalism. I never bought the idea that such a thing existed. There's even less reason to believe it after today.

All this took place beneath the National Assembly's official crucifix, which hangs over the speaker's chair

Quebec nationalists have always claimed that theirs is a civic, utterly non-ethnic, non-religious nationalism. I never bought the idea that such a thing existed. There's even less reason to believe it after today. (Fred Ernst/Associated Press)

I grew up in Quebec, but I last lived there in 1994, so I am told by francophone friends my old assumptions about the pure laine nature of the province's culture are dinosaurish. Quebec, they tell me, is a vibrant, multi-ethnic, accepting society.

Everything, I am assured, has changed since nationalist leader Lucien Bouchard declared during the 1995 referendum campaign that Quebecers are a "white race," and his political partner, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the separatists' loss on "money and the ethnic votes."

Around the same time, I sat with some embarrassment as Quebec media icon Laurier LaPierre stamped angrily out of the room during a dinner party over the suggestion that Quebec is a more homogeneous, less accepting place than English Canada.

LaPierre was gay and said he always felt more welcomed in Quebec.

Identifying 'real' Quebecers

But, of course, LaPierre was also white and of Roman Catholic heritage. He never tried to wear a turban or a niqab or a skullcap in, say, Rimouski, the riding once represented by the fearsome Suzanne Tremblay of the Bloc Québécois, who liked to identify and single out those prominent Quebecers who weren't "real" Quebecers, based on accent or spelling of name.

Anyway, I've given way in recent years. I am, after all, an anglo who grew up in Quebec and speaks fluent French, which is a much different thing than being a Quebecer.

It is also unquestionable that Montreal has changed, at least the downtown neighbourhoods I still visit frequently; they are becoming a multicultural Babel, and the internet has shattered government efforts to ensure languages other than French remain unlearned, at least by the hoi polloi.

Pauline Marois proposed the Charter of Values in 2013, which would ban public sector employees from wearing overt religious symbols. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

I was further chastened when the Parti Québécois of Pauline Marois, with its deeply ethnocentric "Charter of Values," was laughed out of the room by Quebec voters last election in much the same manner as federal Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, with her nativist leadership campaign to test the "values" of new immigrants, was laughed out of the room by her own party.

Conservative Party of Canada members no doubt remembered it was Leitch, at the direction of Stephen Harper, who championed the Tories' "barbaric practices tipline" and solidly backed Harper's proposed ban on niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. That idea, along with the Conservatives, was shunned by most voters, especially in Quebec.

But shamelessness remains a vital requisite in politics.

Let me see, how can I say this…

Today, under the gaze of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross, Quebec's governing Liberals stood as one and voted into law a "religious neutrality" bill forbidding anyone granting or receiving government services — which includes riding a bus or subway — from wearing a face covering.

As one, the opposition parties stood and opposed it, not out of concern for freedom of expression but because the bill didn't go far enough. It didn't ban turbans and the paraphernalia of other religions from the public square.

To repeat: all this took place beneath the National Assembly's official crucifix, which hangs morosely over the speaker's chair.

In fact, the new law takes pains to specifically enshrine that hypocrisy. Section 13 states: "The measures introduced in this Act must not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec's cultural heritage, in particular its religious cultural heritage, that testify to its history."

Translation: Quebec remains largely white and Roman Catholic, especially outside Montreal, where there's a big church in practically every town, and God help anyone stupid enough to remove that crucifix, or monkey around with other Catholic symbols, like the giant illuminated cross that dominates the summit of Mount Royal in Montreal. This law is about Muslims, period. Ça va?

A crucifix above the speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly. (CBC)

To put it another way, Quebec's ruling Liberals just implemented a Harper policy that was widely regarded as racist, and Quebec's opposition parties could be led by Kellie Leitch, if she could just learn to speak French with more than Grade 2 proficiency.

Had the Parti Québécois had its way, the new federal NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh — who flaunts his own religion, wearing a turban and carrying a ceremonial dagger — wouldn't be allowed onto a bus in Montreal, much less into the public gallery of the National Assembly.

Don't get me wrong. I'm uncomfortable with shows of overt religiosity by political leaders. I trust neither Singh nor Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a devout Christian conservative, to keep their religious views out of governance.

But I'm even more uncomfortable with government telling any of us what we can publicly declare, or wear. Niqabs are creepy instruments meant to control women, but women have the right to wear them if they wish, just as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have the right to wear strange costumes from the Pale of Settlement, and their wives have the right to cover their heads, or shave them and wear wigs.

And take the bus while they're at it.

But passing this law and making self-righteous speeches about the need for "religious neutrality" and "social cohesion" while the bleeding, tortured martyr-God of their own religion hangs on the opposite wall is a special level of hypocrisy.

Quebec nationalists have always claimed that theirs is a civic, utterly non-ethnic, non-religious nationalism. I never bought the idea that such a thing existed. There's even less reason to believe it after today.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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