Quebec's secularism charter is about prudence, not bigotry
The National Post, 18 September 2013
The National Post, 18 September 2013
Canadians should be careful of dismissing Quebec’s secularism charter too quickly, especially on the ground that the proposal represents intolerance and xenophobia. If the Quebec government is correct that a lack of migrant integration jeopardizes its society, the motivation for the policy is prudence, not bigotry. Along with Quebec’s distinctive approach to secularism and the government’s plausible criticisms of multiculturalism, this means that there is more to consider here than the supposed ethnic rabblerousing of the Parti Québécois.
Reasonable people are right to be concerned about certain religious accouterments, in particular the face veil worn by some Muslim women. Donning such an article signals a profound hostility to the native culture: it flouts the custom of presenting one’s face as a sign of mutual respect and good intention, and it undermines the full civic participation of women, whose identity ought not be effaced by an intentional obstruction.
Canada is also a federal democracy where provinces can enact laws which may be unpopular or even offensive to their counterparts, provided that these laws adhere to the constitution — a matter that remains contested in this case. And the province in question is one that has, rightly or wrongly, been identified by the federal government as a distinct society. This acknowledgment would seem to entail a heightened tolerance for laws that do not conform to those found elsewhere in the country, especially when such laws emanate from an approach or institution that is particular to Quebec’s culture.
One such diversion is the distinction between secularism, as understood in Anglo-Protestant cultures, and laïcité, the conception of a secular society descended from French anti-clericalism. The former sees any abrogation of religious liberty as a violation of state neutrality; the latter, francophone model believes that the state must proactively supervise the proverbial public square, ensuring that the trajectory of a liberal, declericalized society is not disrupted.
The most important element, however, involves the PQ’s principal justification for its initiative: the perceived shortcomings of multiculturalism, which is a veritable political dogma in English Canada. In a CBC radio interview on August 30, former Premier Bernard Landry defended the yet-tabled Charter on this very ground, stating that the multicultural experiment, in Europe as well as Canada, had failed. He was implying that the PQ’s proposal was a rightful rejection of the multicultural ethos.
While many anglophone commentators have attributed the most cynical of intentions to the péquistes, I think that one should take them at their word here. Though the corrosive effects of multiculturalism have been less prevalent in Canada, mostly due to a more zealous regime of immigrant screening, the Québécois are as capable as anyone of seeing what’s happened to the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Netherlands thanks to various iterations of multiculturalism. Even France, the European society with which Quebec is most strongly tied, has experienced serious problems such as the creation of ethnoreligious enclaves in Paris and the importing of jihadism from its former colonies in North Africa.
The Québécois also possess a strong sense of the kind of society in which they want to live, and have the historical memory of losing their cultural autonomy to “outsiders”. The bien-pensant types can call that bigotry if they want, but they would be ignoring a genuine attempt at protecting the character of Quebec society from what many — in fact, a majority — feel is a tangible problem.
This is not to say that the method chosen by the Quebec government is best suited to the job. In fact, I would argue that a ban on all religious garb is an absurdly-broad sweep, considering that any conceivable dress by Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs, even in the “public square”, is unrelated to the problems identified with multiculturalism. Rather, if the niqab is the issue, the government should ban its use and deal with the fallout, instead of sending the message that all religious people are unwelcome in state institutions.
And even if Quebec were to do this, it would leave the essence of multiculturalism unaddressed. This is because ostentatious religious garb is only the surface issue— the “banal multiculturalism”, if you will. Yet the substantive political analects of the doctrine, which incentivize any idea or behaviour which accentuates the appearance of diversity, must be addressed by a change in thought, not a change of clothing.
But at least the Québécois are trying, even if their initiative takes significant “collateral damage” by censoring religious expression. This should motivate caution, but not the outright rejection we’ve seen so far. Instead of lazily attributing xenophobia to the Charter proposal, Canadians should have a better look at what is actually being done here, perhaps in the service of better solution to what is in fact a real issue.
|Jackson Doughart||jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com|