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Québécois Xenophobia Festers Under the Guise of “State Secularism“

Quebec’s “state secularism” has a strong Catholic tone.

Anti-racist counter-protesters demonstrate in opposition to a rally organized by extreme-right group La Meute Quebec City, Canada, on August 21, 2017. (Photo: ALICE CHICHE / AFP / Getty Images)

In the wake of the last US election shift to the right, many Americans have turned to Canada as a land of promise. It seems as if the youth and charm of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has succeeded in reinforcing this problematic and deceptive image. Additionally, earlier his month, the New Democratic Party elected Canada’s first non-white party leader, Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh. Canada, however, is not immune (nor has it ever been) to the current ascendance of right-wing xenophobia. Nowhere is this truer than in Québec, where a debate on state secularism has been unfolding over the past decade.

This October, the debate took a particularly sour turn as the province’s National Assembly voted in favor of Bill 62, a law requiring citizens who give or receive public services to do so with their faces uncovered. This bill was, unsurprisingly, widely denounced across Canada for its blatant targeting of Muslim women who chose to wear a niqab or burqa. The Québécois government has since somewhat backtracked, as the idea of Muslim women being refused access to a public library or being unable to ride a municipal bus is seen as a step too far. Moreover, human rights advocates have recently challenged the Bill’s legality in the province’s superior court. The ratification of such a bill, however, points to an undeniable climate of systematic xenophobia that must be addressed within Québécois and Canadian society.

According to the Globe and Mail, over 80 percent of those polled in Québec were in favor of Bill 62 (although, as the Globe and Mail notes, the poll was taken before the province had clarified the scope of the bill and how it would be enforced). The support for this bill has been largely pronounced in the name of state secularism, seen by many as a core value of Québécois society. In the name of secularism (the French term laïcité is used in Québécois politics) many believe that all forms of religious identification should be purged from the public sphere. In 2007, a national commission chaired by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard was created to examine the need and justification for what were deemed “reasonable accommodations” in the midst of a manufactured opportunistic political and social crisis. This “crisis” was provoked by a series of incidents in which people belonging to religious minorities requested to be accommodated in the public sphere (for example, asking for prayer spaces in the workplace). For some, these requests posed a direct threat to the value of state secularism.

This frequently hypocritical belief in state secularism is rationalized by pointing to the province’s religious history. In the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church held tremendous cultural power in Québec and was seen by many as an oppressive institution. This period is referred to as the “Great Darkness” (la grande noirceur) of Québec’s history. The 1960s saw the spark of a cultural rebellion, the “Quiet Revolution,” that eventually led to the reform of many of the province’s institutions. However, though the position of the church was fundamentally reduced, Catholicism remains a forceful symbolic cultural presence in Québec (much infrastructure still sports the names of clergy and, inside the National Assembly itself, a large crucifix still hangs). For this reason, many remark that Québec’s state secularism has a decidedly Catholic tone.

Others argue that the province’s unique cultural context (Québec is the only majority francophone territory in North America and has developed a distinct francophone culture) is threatened by the arrival of immigrants who refuse to assimilate to the ways of the majority. This is why Québécois scholars and nationalists have defended the idea of interculturalism (as opposed to Canadian multiculturalism) that stipulates that the culture of the majority should remain dominant and be adopted by all citizens in the public sphere. Incidentally, many have pointed to the xenophobic tendencies of Québec’s nationalist movement as having an essential influence on the province’s public policies. This attitude was exemplified by the infamous words of Jacques Parizeau, premier of Québec during the 1995 referendum on Québécois sovereignty, who claimed that the “yes” camp had been defeated by “money and the ethnic vote.” The last nationalist government (in office from 2012 to 2014) provoked a widespread scandal by supporting the idea of a Québécois charter of values (viewed by many as an extreme example of Western paternalism) that would also ban government employees from sporting any “ostentatious” signs of religious affiliation (ironically, Bill 62, passed by the current liberal government, goes even further). What seems undeniable is that the province’s history and context have nurtured a fundamental social malaise regarding all issues of diversity and tolerance of explicit cultural differences.

Furthermore, Québécois xenophobia is progressively manifesting as overt forms of collective racism and xenophobia, and the adoption of Bill 62 is a prime example. Perhaps more disturbingly, far-right white supremacist groups like La Meute and Soldiers of Odin have emerged from the shadows with growing numbers of adherents. Finally, one cannot forget the horrific violence that transpired in January at a mosque near Québec City, when a white supremacist shot and killed six people. Whilst many in Québec simply dismiss claims of collective xenophobia as “Québec bashing,” it seems increasingly difficult to ignore the blatant signs of what has revealed itself to be a very deep-seated intolerance.

The truth is Québécois society needs to recognize and examine the sources of its intolerance and xenophobia. All Western societies are complicit in the human and moral failings of globalization, and accepting this means at least tolerating the influx of refugees and immigrants who have had to uproot themselves in the hopes of ensuring a more promising future. Québec’s social fabric, like all Western societies, is changing, becoming more diverse and multicultural. These changes require re-examining our social identity. We can either embrace this change and look toward the enriching and fascinating experience of discovering different cultures and learning from one another, or we can force others to assimilate and continue to wonder why our culture is viewed as oppressive and intolerant. Protecting Québec’s distinctiveness should not require subjugating others to a collective intolerance that masks itself as a paternalistic and hypocritical form of state secularism.

All this is not to say that Canadian society doesn’t struggle with its changing social fabric and increasingly diverse demography; it does. Moreover, Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people testifies to a persistent colonial and racist political and social character. However, it remains that the explicit and dangerous form of collective xenophobia spawned by the Québécois context urgently needs to be recognized and denounced.

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