Quebec Is Not So Secular

Parti Québécois’s Charter of Values is being sold as a score for secularism. A recent study, however, shows that Quebec is far more religious than widely assumed—and that the charter’s values might be at odds with those of the province.

Simon Lewsen is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. His work has appeared in ...

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The introduction of Parti Québécois’s Charter of Values triggered a flurry of debate and a fair bit of noise. For critics like the National Post’s Allan Levine, the Charter is final proof that Quebec culture is rotten and xenophobic and always has been; for the Charter’s most vocal proponents—like PQ Minister Bernard Drainville—the proposed legislation is motivated not by hate, but by the need to defend Quebec’s uniquely secular inheritance, a legacy that Anglophones fail to understand.

Both are right and wrong. To Levine’s credit, the charter surely has traction among xenophobes; at the same time, the province does have a unique—and uniquely fraught—relationship with religion, and Quebecers have every right to feel proud and a bit protective of such a strong anti-clerical tradition. Where the Charter’s defenders get it wrong is in their assumption that enforced secularism is somehow in line with Québécois values.

In Anglo-Canadian history there’s nothing comparable to the Quiet Revolution, the 1960s social upheaval that made Québécois identity political, proud, and fierce, while reducing the Roman Catholic Church from a monolith to an anachronism. Today, the Quiet Revolution’s legacy partly explains why the sovereignty issue continues to cast its shadow, why students take to the streets at the prospect of tuition hikes, why Quebec indie movies are so much sexier than Anglo-Canadian productions, and why (unlike the rest of us) Quebecers don’t spend the best years of their lives ferrying from engagement parties to bridal showers to weddings.

In 1950s Quebec, religion was synonymous with Catholicism and the Catholic Church was the province’s chief educator, healthcare provider, and moral authority. The Church employed an army of clergymen (one for every 97 Roman Catholics) to dispense social welfare and oversee virtually every aspect of Québécois life. You couldn’t join a labour union without clerical oversight, sex was for reproduction only, and the Church proscribed everything from divorce to eating meat on Fridays.

To understand the province’s queasiness about organized religion, you have to appreciate just how all-consuming the church used to be—and how decisively it was defeated.

The cultural and political reforms of the 1960s changed all of that. By the 1970s, church attendance had plummeted; education wasn’t a privilege granted by the clergy, but a right protected by the state; the concept of recreational sex no longer seemed radical; marriage was something you might or might not do; and the slogan Maîtres chez nous (masters in our own home) had become a rallying cry for everything from anti-clericalism to the nascent sovereignty movement. To understand the province’s queasiness about organized religion, you have to appreciate just how all-consuming the church used to be—and how decisively it was defeated.

Quebecers have contended with religion in a way that Anglophones haven’t. While churchgoers in Ontario and Alberta grew slowly apathetic, Québécois waged war against a religious juggernaut. We slept in late on Sunday mornings; they wrestled with angels. To assume, however, that religion is Quebec’s greatest foe—and that forbidding public servants to wear religious symbols is somehow a victory for provincial identity—is a misreading of history. The Quiet Revolution put thousands of clerics out of jobs and hundreds of churches onto the real estate market, but it didn’t eliminate religion in the province. Instead, it gave people the freedom to practice informally, experimentally, and on their own terms. It was a victory for religious freedom over institutional control—which is why Marois’s Charter of Values is so radically misguided.

It is a cliché today to depict French people as smarmy atheists. To be sure, in a country where the legacies of Voltaire, Sartre, and the Third Republic loom large, atheism has become the default position among intellectuals. But Quebec isn’t France. Data from Statistics Canada shows that only six percent of Quebecers identify as irreligious. In a 2004 survey, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby asked informants across the country if they’d ever had a personal encounter with the divine. In Quebec, some 57 percent—more than in any other province—said that they had.

So where are these believers? This year, in the first installment of an ongoing study seven years in the making, Université de Montréal anthropologists Deirdre Meintel and Géraldine Mossière provide a sketch of Montreal’s religious underground. Employing a seven-person research team, they surveyed one hundred religious communities in the Montreal area, spending at least three months with each. They discovered that, in Montreal, a lot of religious practices happen off the grid.

Hindus and African Pentecostals hold sessions in inner-city apartments where they share elevators; Spiritualists conduct healing ceremonies in un-churchlike community centres; Wiccans practice nighttime rituals in public parks, including the crucifix-capped Mount Royal; Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists take communion at the St. Joseph’s Oratory, a traditionally Catholic shrine that houses the preserved heart of its founding saint, Brother André. “When people are doing things that are more marginal, they feel obliged to be discreet,” says Meintel. “For instance, there are many people who don’t go to a mosque—they consider it too political—but they practice Islam in their lives.”

Quebecers have contended with religion in a way that Anglophones haven’t. While churchgoers in Ontario and Alberta grew slowly apathetic, Québécois waged war against a religious juggernaut. We slept in late on Sunday mornings; they wrestled with angels. 

Meintel and Mossière’s work also explodes one of the most entrenched stereotypes about religion in Quebec, namely that it’s an immigrant practice. “When we talk about religious diversity, most people think it’s more or less equivalent to ethnic diversity,” says Meintel. Their study tracks inter-ethnic groups, like a Baha’i congregation where members pray in French, English, Spanish, and Farsi, and a group of Congolese Pentecostals who have a contingent of Quebec-born practitioners among their ranks.

The majority of Meintel and Mossière’s informants, however, are Québécois with Catholic backgrounds who practice new age Buddhism, shamanistic religions like Spiritualism and Charismatic Catholicism, and various neo-Pagan tradition. “Québécois can do a lot of seeking without having to compromise whatever’s left of a Catholic identity,” says Meintel. “You can be a Buddhist or neo-Shamanic and you don’t have to separate yourself in any formal way from the church.” In one Montreal Spiritualist centre, patrons commune with the spirits of the Virgin Mary and Brother André in a room adorned with angels, Aboriginal iconography, the Jewish Star of David, and an altar supporting the Anglican King James Bible.

This willingness to mix and match calls to mind the ethos of Piscine Patel, the Hindu/Christian/Muslim protagonist of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, who insists that having three religions is better than one—or none at all. The world that Meintel and Mossière depict is a far cry from the rigidly secular tradition touted as central to Québécois values. Historian Michael Gauvreau argues that the Quiet Revolution’s legacy is “not so much…the decline of private belief, but…the rapid loss of a Catholic public identity.” Similarly, sociologist Raymond Lemieux suggests that the Church’s sudden demise created a spiritual vacuum in the province. As churches were sold and converted into recording studios, workout centres, and lofts, the need for rituals and cosmologies persisted, so Quebecers filled the void by practicing DIY religion. Meintel and Mossière’s study bears this hypothesis out.

For Meintel, notions of Quebec as a uniquely irreligious place misconstrue history and local culture. She argues that the legacy of the Quiet Revolution is not staunch secularism, but religious cosmopolitanism—defined by willingness to experiment, openness to hybridity, and a corresponding respect for divergent belief systems. “In our experience, religious practitioners are a lot less dogmatic than the government’s secularist program that we’re hearing about today,” she says.

In the 1960s, the architects of the Quiet Revolution brought secularist freedoms to compete with religious strictures. Today, it seems the reverse is true: a harsh secularist agenda is being foisted onto a community that, in its spiritual life, is anything but rigid. To be sure, many Quebec residents support Marois’ Charter of Values—some 40 percent at last count. But in a province where an overwhelming majority is something other than atheist, it’s hard to see how support for the charter is rooted in deeply ingrained secular values. Ironically, the charter is an attack on the very legacy it purports to defend.

A previous version of this story stated that Deirdre Meintel and Géraldine Mossière are sociologists, not anthropologists. The story has been updated to reflect this correction.

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