On Quebec’s Latest Uniquely Awful Attempt at Secularism

True story: my father once described his parents’ relationship as controversial because at the time—the late 1940s—it was called a “mixed marriage.” Catholic/Protestant, see. Hearing this story many, many decades later, I probably gawped at the idea that anyone could tell, much less be angered about, this mix.

I tend to think of this story whenever the issue of how Canada should deal with religious minorities comes up. There are any number of lessons one can draw from Canada’s history of religious tolerance. One, if your memory goes back no further than 2008 or so, would be to say that Quebec is uniquely bad at it. This seems to be the story English Canada tells itself whenever someone in Quebec starts yelling at brown people, as seems likely again in the future with the province rolling out a “Charter of Quebec Values.” (Meanwhile, Stephen Harper set up a foreign affairs department expressly for our country to yell at Muslim ones.)

Let’s just take a moment and consider how strange it is that secularism is seen as a key Quebec value in the first place, shall we? Within living memory (albeit just barely), Quebec was passing some of Canada’s most notorious laws to persecute non-Catholic religious minorities that had to be struck down by the Supreme Court—a notable occurrence in the pre-Charter era. And yes, the chamber of the National Assembly will retain its crucifix, leading some of us to wonder how sincere Quebec’s “secular” pose really is. (Ontario doesn’t even try to pose: the legislature still starts every session with the Lord’s Prayer.)

That said, what’s significant about the attitude in Quebec is how the debate over “reasonable accommodation” seems to always revolve around the small stuff. Whether kids can wear religious headgear while playing sports. Whether other kids can keep a ceremonial dagger on their person at schoolParking restrictions being lifted on Jewish holidays. Using the sledgehammer of the law against these kinds of complaints looks, outside of Quebec, like legalistic harassment. It’s tempting to dismiss it all as small fry, but I live in a city (Toronto) that elected Rob Ford based on a laundry list of small-fry grievances.

The encouraging thing about us sweating the small stuff is that it probably means we’re getting the big stuff right, after all. In the midst of all the headlines and controversies, we need to keep one very important thing in mind: Canada is really, really good at making you whatever would have horrified your grandparents. Basically all of the evidence we have suggests that children born in Canada have no screaming desire to be like their folks from the old country. (This was somehow missed in all the outrage over the Aqsa Parvez killing—Aqsa was as Canadian as we could have asked her to be.) The “accommodation” is happening, and it’s happening a lot—it’s just happening with the kids of immigrants instead of the immigrants themselves. But this is how it’s always been.

Canada, in the end, turns out to be a universal solvent for dogma. We’re a country that births Jews who eat bacon, Muslims who drink and Catholics who skip Lent. (How do you think Quebec became secular?) It takes some time, and sometimes it takes big public arguments, but the one thing it hasn’t needed is having the law ready to be used as a cudgel.

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