Introduction by Richard Fidler
Quebec’s public debate over reasonable accommodation of minorities, especially religious minorities, continues to rage. A recent contribution that has attracted much comment and controversy is the Manifesto for a Pluralist Quebec, the short version of which is translated below.
Life on the Left has translated and published a number of previous contributions to the debate as it has centered on the left party Québec solidaire, which has come out strongly in support of an “open secularism” that respects the expression of freedom of conscience in a context of state neutrality.
It may be hard for many non-Quebeckers to understand why these issues arouse such emotions and controversy in Quebec. After all, freedom of belief and the right to manifest one’s beliefs publicly as well as privately has long been recognized in international law and convention. For example, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides, in article 18, that
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
However, these issues can prove unexpectedly complex in nations that are characterized by insecurity over their national identity and status. Quebec is an example. In a recent newspaper article, philosopher Michel Seymour of the Université de Montréal argues – correctly, in my view – that the debate can only be appreciated by understanding “the source of the uneasiness over identity experienced by the people of Quebec”:
“They have faced numerous rebuffs by the Canadian state over the last 50 years. Against their will, a new constitutional order was imposed on them in 1982 and the Meech Lake Accord, which was aimed at repairing the damage, was rejected. During the same period the Québécois suffered two referendum defeats. They are still in a constitutional ‘no-man’s-land’ and a legal limbo. More profoundly, they are not recognized as a people internationally or as a people within Canada. So they suffer from a need for recognition and a lack of national affirmation.”
Quebec’s political situation, says Seymour, “largely explains the reaction of many people to the growing number of examples of accommodations. These Québécois have been confronted with citizens who manage to assert themselves, to demand recognition of their cultural practices and defend their rights, while the Quebec people as a whole do not appear to be in a position to obtain an analogous recognition within Canada.”
The Manifesto for a Pluralist Quebec offers a clear description of what secularism entails, and the distinction between state action and the expression of private or personal belief. It is a welcome addition to the public debate, which, as it says, has become highly polarized between extremes that present themselves as mutually exclusive. It makes a substantial argument from the standpoint of liberal principles.
But in my view the Manifesto pays insufficient attention to the aspect highlighted by Prof. Seymour and a few others – the national oppression of Quebec and the complex effect this has on the debate on accommodations. Worse, it bases its position in part on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, part of the Constitution imposed on Quebec in 1982. That Charter (not to be confused, as the Manifesto does, with Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms) was directed in part against Quebec’s national movement. It denied Quebec a veto over constitutional change and contained a number of provisions that have been used by the courts to overthrow key parts of Quebec’s popular Charter of the French Language. This Constitution as a whole, adopted in the wake of the 1980 referendum defeat, fails to recognize Quebec’s national character.
The Quebec debate is not simply between “conservative nationalists” and strict or absolute secularists, on the one side, and philosphical liberals. It is also a debate within the national movement and Quebec society as a whole over important questions involving conceptions of the nation itself and how ethnic and religious minorities can be integrated within it.
The Manifesto equates the state’s interest with “democracy” and the “common good”, and portrays the state (both federal and provincial) as the protector of “citizens’ equality”. This tends to ignore the underlying class differences and the crucial role of the state in upholding, reinforcing and reproducing those differences within the broader society. “Respect for the rights of minorities, including religious minorities, is part of our tradition, and the legacy of the Charters,” states the Manifesto. Well, yes and no. The Canadian Charter certainly fails to respect the rights of the Québécois national minority.
True, the longer version of the Manifesto does address the national question in one paragraph, but treats it as largely resolved:
“It seems erroneous to us to argue that this policy of respect for diversity implemented in Quebec in recent decades has had as a consequence the negation of the Québécois nation or the interests of the majority. There is no incompatibility in affirming both respect for diversity and the continuity of the Québécois nation. Quebec already selects about 70% of its newcomers in terms of its collective interests and criteria that it has established itself…. It has adopted a Charter of the French Language that defends and promotes the language of the majority. As to ‘open’ secularism, it makes a distinction between the historical heritage and identifying the state with a particular religion. The non-confessional teaching of religions provided by the Ethics and Religious Culture course, for example, grants a greater place to Christian traditions because of their historical importance in Quebec.”
There is no recognition here that a people lacking full democratic and constitutional sovereignty cannot rely on state legislation and judicial review and enforcement to remedy their national inequality. An independent Quebec in which French was in fact and not just in law the “language of common public discourse” would find it easier to approach issues of minority integration and citizenship with much greater confidence and tolerance toward minority ethnicities and their religions and cultures.
MANIFESTO FOR A PLURALIST QUEBEC
The debate on identity is taking a dangerous turn. An open and pluralist vision of Quebec society is coming under the combined attack of two currents at odds with the major orientations of modern Quebec.
One, a “conservative nationalist” vision, sees today’s Quebec as having conceded too much to cultural diversity. Interculturalism, open secularism and reasonable accommodation practices, it alleges, are jeopardizing an authentic Quebec culture, eclipsing the memory of the historic majority. The other, a strict vision of secularism, objects to conspicuous religious manifestations in the public sphere. It seeks to expel religion from the public space, in the name, this time, of a conception of society that limits any sign of religious allegiance to the private space alone.
These two currents, at first sight different, concur in a similar attitude of intransigence toward minorities, demanding that they submit to a vision of Quebec society that they did not help to forge. And they concur as well in their call for strict application of the principles of secularism in opposition to citizens professing religious beliefs that are held to be incompatible with Quebec values.
But there is another vision of our society, one that is more tolerant and above all more dynamic in its conception of social relations. It corresponds more closely to the requirements of contemporary Quebec and it must be defended.
Pluralism and interculturalism
Pluralism is accused of relativism, Trudeau-ist multiculturalism, “Charter-ism”, antinationalism, elitism, etc. But far from all these “isms”, the pluralist position considers that the members of the minorities should not be made the victims of discrimination or exclusion on the basis of their difference, and that the integration of immigrants in Quebec society should not require pure and simple assimilation. If an immigrant must strive to become integrated in the host society and comply with its laws and institutions, the host society must ensure that it lifts the obstacles to this integration. The duty of adaptation is reciprocal.
The pluralist position is based on respect for and recognition of diversity. That does not mean that any and all cultural and religious practices must be tolerated, or that Quebec society must be conceived as the juxtaposition of communities that are shut off from each other. On the contrary, pluralism favours intercultural relationships and is meant to be a deepening of democratic values.
Sometimes secularism is demanded as if its principles were absent from our public culture. This is mistaken. In Quebec, the state elaborates the collective norms independently of groups based on religion or conviction. It exercises its neutrality by refraining from promoting or impeding, directly or indirectly, a religion or a secular conception of existence, within the limits of the common good. This policy orientation responds to the need to protect freedom of conscience and its free expression, as well as the equality of citizens. This means that civic and political rights are not conditional on the abdication of the beliefs and practices of those who express them.
However, we find that the idea is cropping up in Quebec that religious adherence that is publicly expressed is prejudicial to national identity, hence the necessity to adopt a charter of secularism. But as a matter of fact such a charter would be primarily a legal instrument prohibiting the manifestation of religious allegiance in the public sphere as well as requests for accommodation on religious grounds.
While it is essential to agree on the meaning and scope of secularism, the outright banning of any manifestation of religious adherence does not respond to any social necessity. Such a prohibition would have a discriminatory effect, for it would target only believers belonging to religions that entail prescriptions on clothing or food. But above all, it would be disproportionate to the objectives, such as neutrality of public services.
Secularism is imposed on the state
This institutional neutrality requires that collective norms be applied impartially, irrespective of gender, ethnic origin or religious adherence. The fact that a state agent displays a sign of religious adherence does not prevent him or her in any way from impartially applying the secular norms; a citizen may only note this religious sign in the same way as he or she may notice the civil servant’s ethnic origin.
It cannot be assumed that this religious affiliation constitutes a subjectivity that interferes in the way in which the official applies the law or regulation, any more than his or her skin colour or gender does. On the other hand, the prohibition of religious signs may be justified if those signs result in a malfunctioning of the service, a problem of safety or security, or discriminatory treatment of other persons, or if they give rise to proselytism. Secularism is imposed on the state, not on individuals.
There is much talk about “Quebec values”. Some say accommodations, the Ethics and Religious Culture [ECR] course in the schools and other measures make minority values override those of the majority or promote relativism. On the contrary, they say, the majority has the right to demand that immigrants conform to “our” values. But what about these values?
According to certain conservative nationalists, diversity is simply skin-deep. There is in Quebec a silent majority, they say, that has never renounced its traditional values, which represent our true identity. This rhetoric is more a reflection of the voluntarism of its defenders than it is an accurate representation of Quebec society. By what mystical symbiosis do they manage to uncover the true content of the values of this majority? It must be said that they are projecting their own preferences, postulating a vast consensus in favour of those preferences.
Other critics, however, claim to find these common values in something short of the proliferation of life styles – in some abstractly formulated principles such as democracy, rights, freedom, pluralism and equality between men and women. But how are the concrete limits of these rights to be defined? And what exactly does this commitment imply, over and above compliance with the laws? If we try to answer these questions, we again find the complexity that we had hoped to avoid. It would be futile to try to reduce the diversity of contemporary Quebec. Instead, we should find the means for dialogue that will enable us to reach common decisions beyond our differences.
The charters of rights and the institutions
The “reasonable accommodations crisis” has revealed the existence among some of a crisis of confidence in our institutions, and in particular in the capacity of the law and the courts to oversee the implementation of these accommodations on the basis of fundamental values and principles.
While our political and policy-making institutions have a role to play in defining accommodation practices, we must ensure that the fundamental texts, our Charters of Rights, are not devalued. Yet that is what we do when they are made to compete with other values – for example, when gender equality, separation of church and state, primacy of the French language or (in a bill recently tabled in the National Assembly) Quebec’s historical heritage are made to trump Charter rights. That is a tautological exercise.
In fact, some of these elements (such as equality between men and women) already underlie some general legal concepts such as the prohibition of discrimination. Similarly, the separation of church and state, which has been explicitly recognized by our courts since the 1950s, is now conceptualized as resulting from the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Charters of Rights.
These rights and freedoms are more than a disembodied set of norms. On the contrary, respect for the rights of minorities, including religious minorities, is part of our tradition, and the legacy of the Charters.
The path of continuity
The critics of pluralism often accuse it of breaking with Quebec’s historical trajectory. But instead it is the advocates of an absolute secularism and a conservative identity-based nationalism who are choosing to break with that trajectory.
The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, interculturalism, the Charter of the French Language, and open secularism are intended to establish a balance, always shifting, between the legitimate concerns of the majority and the concerns of the minorities. The constant search for this balance honours Quebec and continues to be the condition for genuine cohabitation. It is our hope that it will continue.
[signed] Pierre Bosset, Dominique Leydet, Jocelyn Maclure, Micheline Milot and Daniel Weinstock.
The authors are all professors (jurisprudence, philosophy or sociology) at the University of Montreal, Laval University or the University of Quebec in Montréal. More than 800 additional signatories support the content of this manifesto. The long version, a full list of the authors, and a useful bibliography can be found here
- Quebec Left Debates Strategy for Independence;
- Quebec needs workers’ unity, not a ‘charter of secularism’ – Québec solidaire;
- Québec solidaire members defend party’s position on secularism, women’s rights;
- Secularism – For a broad, open and democratic debate.
 Summary definitions of these terms, commonly used in Quebec’s debates on secularism, are provided in the report of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (the “Bouchard-Taylor commission”, after its co-chairs), which published its report in May 2008:
Interculturalism: A policy or model that advocates harmonious relations between cultures based on intensive exchanges centred on an integration process that does not seek to eliminate differences while fostering the development of a common identity.
Open secularism: A form of secularism that allows displays of the religious in public institutions, for example, among the clientele and staff of schools and hospitals.
Reasonable accommodation: An arrangement that falls under the legal sphere, more specifically case law, aimed a relaxing the application of a norm or a statute in favour of an individual or a group of people threatened with discrimination for one of the reasons specified in the Charter.
 See the Introduction, above, for explanations of these terms. “Multiculturalism”, the term given legislative force by the Trudeau government and incorporated in the Canadian Charter, is often distinguished from “interculturalism” in Quebec because, as the Bouchard-Taylor commission says, it is often interpreted to mean that “a society’s common identity is defined solely through reference to political principles rather than to a culture, ethnicity or history,” and thus fails to reflect Quebec’s historical and cultural heritage.
 A proposed Charte de la laicïté, or Charter of Secularism, has been drawn up by an improvised “citizen’s collective for equality and secularism” (CCIEL in its French acronym). It calls, inter alia, for banning the display of “conspicuous religious signs”, such as wearing the hijab, from all public institutions, government offices and the schools. The Parti Québécois has indicated its support for this “charter”.
 In the wake of deconfessionalization of Quebec’s public schools, finally won in 1997 through an amendment to the Canadian Constitution, a government-appointed commission proposed that comparative religions be taught in the elementary and secondary schools. It began to be implemented in 2008. See also Report of the Task Force on Curriculum Reform. The ECR course has been widely criticized as an indirect means of reintroducing religious instruction in the schools.
Richard Fidler is a Socialist Voice Contributing Editor. This translation, and his introduction, first appeared in his blog, Life on the Left.