Quebec's values charter forcing rethink of Catholicism, religious identity

Quebec's secular charter has not only scored deep political divisions, it is also provoking Quebecers, according to the polls, to want to reaffirm their Catholic heritage. Just one of the many paradoxes in this fractured debate, Michelle Gagnon writes.

Is Quebec more Catholic than it likes to think?

A Quebec woman wearing a hijab takes part in one of the many protests both for and against the proposed values charter. Each of the past three weekends has seen one side or the other take to the streets of Montreal to show their displeasure/support of the PQ plan. (Canadian Press)

To believe the polls, a new chapter of Quebec history may well be in the making, though it's one that looks to be borrowing heavily on its abandoned past.

Consider the recent CROP/La Presse poll measuring the public reaction to the Parti Québécois' proposed charter of values: 78 per cent of Quebecers believe it is "important to preserve historic Catholic symbols," while 56 per cent say "the Catholic religion should have special status in Quebec" and 62 per cent affirm that they "belong" to a religion.

As André Pratte, editor of La Presse, points out, these numbers beg the question "What happened to the Quiet Revolution, to throwing off the shackles of the Catholic Church, and the separation of church and state?"

Probably nothing. Despite appearances, these numbers don't necessarily add up to an extraordinary reversal of Quebec's national narrative.

For anyone living here, the secular nature of Quebec has long been a fact, as has the principle of equality between men and women, the PQ's other pretext for drumming away at identity politics.

Rather, the numbers are just one of the many paradoxes produced by the very fractured debate over the PQ charter.

"I can't tell if they're the most brilliant political strategists ever or the most incompetent," said one woman, of Pauline Marois's government, at an anti-charter demonstration in Montreal on the weekend.

Indeed, the rollout of this controversial initiative has seen some strange political manoeuvring.

Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for democratic reform (meaning the charter), said the government wanted to feel out the public before proceeding, which can be seen as both a democratic instinct and a door conveniently left open for a government that has had to backtrack on many of its earlier plans (including its reform of Quebec's language law and a wealth tax).

Under the proposed charter of values, Quebec is to rid itself of all religious symbols worn by government employees and in government buildings, save for the crucifix over the Speaker's chair in the National Assembly. Christmas trees may be exempt as well. (Canadian Press)

From the moment the charter proposals were leaked in August, reaction has been visceral.

To its defenders, the crisis of "reasonable accommodation" of minority interests is all too real, and the charter is seen as a logical extension of the Quiet Revolution, a progressive move to map the rules of the road.

At the same time, the PQ has had to own up to not having any dedicated studies to support the need of such a device or the timing of the move.

And so, to its critics, the charter is merely an appeal to ethnic nationalism, nothing but electoral opportunism that stirs the communal pot unnecessarily.

The many faces of a distinct society

In this debate, all the province's rhetorical devices have been enlisted.

Defenders and critics alike invoke René Lévesque and other long-gone heroes of Quebec's independence movement, while Marois has been occasionally slammed with unwelcome comparisons to the secretive ways of Stephen Harper.

Opinion pieces have parsed the issue further and, suddenly, Quebecers are defining themselves in component parts. The atheist feminist who hates the charter, the die-hard nationalist who fights Islamophobia, the Algerian author who blames "the province's multicultural elites" for discrediting the proposal — all have held forth.

They tell compelling personal tales about overcoming prejudice, or finding a safe home in Quebec, free from fundamentalism.

But like Drainville's early rationale for the plan — ''calls" from members of the public concerned about minority accommodation —  they offer anecdotal evidence at best, and shaky ground for policy-making.

The same might be said of the now countless polls on the topic.

In trying to break down the issues at play, polling has become so reductive that Quebec is now home to all sorts of new concepts and categories of people: open and closed secularists, unequal feminism, and asymmetrical secularism among them.

Poll results point in all directions. Though support for the charter has hovered around a majority throughout these last months, voter intentions appear to be veering away from the PQ and toward the Liberals. 

A topless activist from the Quebec group Femen is carried out of the visitor gallery by security after protesting the presence of the crucifix inside the Quebec National Assembly on Tuesday. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

A hierarchy of religious symbols has also been discovered. A Sikh doctor is apparently less objectionable to a majority of Quebecers than a hijab-wearing daycare worker, according to a SOM poll done for Radio-Canada.

But pollsters have had to qualify their findings with the caveat that respondents may have been confused over the differences between a kippa and a kirpan.

Taken together, the picture is not so much one of a polarized province, as it is of a splintered one, a fracturing that an increasing number of people say they have not seen since the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.

Paternalistic politics

From the outset, almost as if she could will it, Premier Marois has told the electorate that her proposed charter will unite all Quebecers.

"To debate is not to divide," she said in an interview with La Presse on the weekend.

But how will limiting the individual rights of some serve to unite all is counter-intuitive, and that disconnect is only aggravated by the continuing Catholic prayers before many municipal council meetings, the PQ's double standard of keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly, and the poll results that signal a fierce attachment to Catholicism

Together, they beg the question: if Quebecers are so attached to their faith, or at least to its trappings, why is it that we're asking others to leave theirs at the door?

Apparently, answers to these questions do exist. "We will take the time to explain things and to change these opinions," Marois said in the La Presse interview. "When the people understand that we're not trying to hurt anyone, perception will change and calm will return."

Unlikely. In fact it may well be the PQ who will have to change its take as, today, no less a PQ icon than former premier Jacques Parizeau is about to break ranks with his old party, saying in an op-ed piece to be published Thursday that the charter goes too far.

His foray into the debate is likely to splinter nationalist ranks, not unlike what the charter itself has done to the province as a whole.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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