Politics

Chris Selley: Legault’s CAQ continues nonsensical war on religious symbols in Quebec

Having won a thumping majority in the National Assembly, the
Coalition Avenir Québec government now seems to be confronting
a familiar conundrum on religious accommodations. A solid
majority of Quebecers reliably tell pollsters they want civil
servants not to wear religious symbols. The CAQ, like the Parti
Québécois, is more than happy to oblige them in opposition, and
on the campaign trail. Leader François Legault promised to use
the notwithstanding clause to remove yarmulkes, turbans, hijabs
and (presumably) crosses from certain classes of civil
servants.

(He promised that as far back
as April, incidentally. Efforts to link his position to Ontario
Premier Doug Ford’s recent use of the notwithstanding clause
could hardly have better illustrated the comprehension gap
between Quebec and the Rest of Canada.)

The trouble is, only a minority of Quebecers tell those same pollsters
they want civil servants to lose their jobs if they’re
determined to wear those religious symbols. Once actual human
beings start entering into the mix — Bouchera Chelbi, for
example, who wears a hijab and has taught for the English
Montreal School Board for a decade — then so does that giant
pain in the ass called basic human compassion.

In opposition and on the election trail, Legault swore blind he
wouldn’t flinch — unlike the Liberals, for example, whose Bill
62 only targeted woman wearing niqabs and burkas. (It’s
currently tied up in the courts, as any forthcoming CAQ
legislation is sure to be.) Among other things, the party long vowed there
would be no grandfathering-in of existing civil servants and
their religious observances.

Now, though, there is suddenly flexibility. “Our position has
always been to say, listen, there’s no grandfather clause,” CAQ
MNA (and potential Justice
Minister) Simon Jolin-Barrette said Tuesday. “That said,
we’re ready to discuss it with the opposition parties. It’s
important to pass a law that will establish laïcité, but we’ll
certainly collaborate with the opposition.”

Teachers are seen as the most likely beneficiaries of such a
concession, and perhaps it’s possible to craft a principled
defence of that: it’s “positions of authority” that most
preoccupy Quebec’s religious vice squad, and one supposes a
teacher wields less power of the state than a judge, police
officer or Crown attorney. Then again, if you decide on
secularist principle that no agents of the state should
indicate their religious beliefs, surely it would be odd to
exempt the civil servants charged with inculcating state
principles in the young.

Then again (again), if you decide the state must be so secular
as to not tolerate religious expression by government actors,
then you sure as hell would want to remove the crucifix mounted
in the National Assembly, in 1936, by notable non-secularist
premier Maurice Duplessis — whose fruitful political
partnership with the Catholic Church is known in Quebec as “la
grande noirceur,” the great darkness, preceding the Quiet
Revolution.

Instead, to no one’s surprise, the CAQ says it has no plans to
remove the crucifix. “It’s not within the framework of the
(laïcité) discussions,” said Jolin-Barette, noting the party’s
traditional position that the crucifix is a symbol of Quebec’s
heritage (“un objet patrimonial”).

The
crucifix that hangs in Quebec’s National Assembly is not part of
the province’s religious symbols discussion.
Jacques Boissinot/The
Canadian Press

He’s not wrong. It just happens to be a heritage, a
patrimonialism, of which genuine secularism is the polar
opposite. “In keeping with the notion of the separation of
Church and State, we believe that the crucifix must be removed
from the wall of the National Assembly, which, indeed, is the
very place that symbolizes the constitutional state,” Gérard
Bouchard and Charles Taylor argued in one of the more lucid
moments of their landmark report on reasonable accommodations,
which nationalists and purported secularists are happy to cite
when it suits them.

So no, principle has very little to do with this. The reason
teachers top the list of potential exemptions is obvious: They
are the civil servants most likely to attract public sympathy.
What kind of ghoulish parents would sooner deprive their child
of a talented and beloved educator than tolerate her hijab or
his turban? A grandfather clause would do no real good: denying
someone a job because of their religion is morally equivalent
to firing them; it just happens to soften the political
backlash.

It was for the same reason, in reverse, that Philippe
Couillard’s Liberal government chose women who wear niqabs and
burkas as the sole targets of legislation ostensibly enshrining
state secularism — because they’re they least popular kind of
people who wear religious symbols, full stop. They hoped that
would be enough. It wasn’t.

Quebec has been wrestling with this embarrassing non-issue for
more than a decade, all for want of someone in a position of
power with the backbone to make a case for letting people wear
what they bloody well want. Failing that, a pragmatist could at
least state the obvious: If the majority of Quebecers don’t
want civil servants to lose their jobs for wearing religious
symbols, then the majority of Quebecers don’t actually support
the law the CAQ proposes.

What those Quebecers have is a preference that civil servants
not wear religious symbols. That’s fine. We all have
preferences. It’s just not the government’s job to make them
all come true.

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com
| Twitter: cselley

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