In my previous post, I discussed the ambivalent legacy of the Catholic Church in Québec in light of the recent canonization of the province’s first homegrown saint. I suggested that the post-sixties rise of Québécois nationalism emerged largely at the expense of this Catholic identity, which many blamed for Québec’s longtime passivity in the face of English-Canadian domination, even as the Church also played a key historical role in the survival of French-Canadian culture. In this post, I would like to suggest the ways in which this complex politico-religious legacy has shaped current debates over the “reasonable accommodation” of immigrants in Québec.

Once again, the canonization of Brother André offers an interesting entry-point into this problematic. Two days after it was announced, the National Assembly (Québec’s provincial legislature) unanimously voted through a motion underscoring the canonization’s significance, after each member of the legislature paid a brief personal tribute to the saint. The one exception to this chorus was Amir Khadir, lone representative of the leftist Québec Solidaire party, who refused to comment on the canonization because he did not feel comfortable pronouncing on religious matters in the Assembly. This provoked outrage from members of the separatist Parti Québécois, some of whom grumbled about the hypocrisy of Khadir’s abstention given his party’s defense of the right of state employees to wear “religious signs” (i.e., the Muslim headscarf) while carrying out their public duties—something the PQ has tried to ban. Earlier this year, the PQ entered the growing debate on secularism in Québec when it called for a provincial “Charter of Secularism” that would define the province as a “strictly secular” society along the lines of France. And yet, it is hard to imagine the staunchly secular French government honouring a Catholic saint with a legislative tribute!

The question of the nature and limits of secularism has come to the fore in recent years, in Québec as in many European countries, as a result of the growing visibility of immigrant groups adhering to different religious and cultural practices. A series of public controversies in 2007 led the Québec government to appoint a commission to investigate what sorts of “reasonable accommodations” ought to be made for these sorts of minority demands. Two of the province’s most prominent intellectuals, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor—a Québec separatist and an Anglophone Catholic—led the commission, which conducted 31 public hearings and collected 900 written briefs from members of the public.

The commission reported its findings in May 2008, recommending a policy of “interculturalism” and “open secularism.” In doing so, the commission recognized that the broader Canadian policy of multiculturalism—enshrined in the Canadian constitution—was not appropriate to Québec. Here, the commissioners put their finger on the nub of the accommodation crisis, stemming as it does from a more basic “crisis of identity” among Québécois who fear that the specificity of the “distinct society” they have worked so hard to protect will disappear under a deluge of multiculturalism. The Québécois fear, in other words, that they will be reduced to being one minority among the many who now inhabit Canada. This indicates the extent to which the Québécois have historically relied upon defining themselves against English Canada—a negative identity whose binding force becomes increasingly fragile as Québec attracts more and more immigrants with a range of cultural and religious affiliations. The Bouchard-Taylor commission therefore called upon Quebecers to embrace a policy of “interculturalism,” distinct from multiculturalism because it stresses integration and interaction rather than allowing cultural groups to coexist as distinct units. In other words, Quebecers must establish a new identity based on common values (pluralism, democracy, secularism, equality, etc.) and a shared language (French) rather than a shared ethnicity and history, so as to be able to incorporate newer arrivals to the province. This is all the more pressing since the declining birthrate among the Québécois renders them dependent upon immigration to sustain the proportion of French speakers in Canada. And yet, if Québec’s identity is reduced to a shared language and a set of universal values, what is left to demarcate the specificity of a culture that has survived by defining itself according to its particularity—as distinct from both North America and France? Because of their double status as both a provincial majority and a national minority, the Québécois are caught between a certain necessary particularism and the need for universal values capable of incorporating people of all cultural backgrounds.

Hence, as in many Western countries these days, the headscarf has become the “visible sign” through which Québec articulates its own identity crisis. Because the accommodation crisis has primarily turned upon questions of religious accommodations, the Bouchard-Taylor report seeks to define precisely the kind of secularism Québec should embrace. In advocating an “open secularism,” the authors of the report explicitly distinguish their approach from French laïcité, which they argue violates the human right to religious freedom and the principle of state neutrality (the state should be neither religious nor openly anti-religious). “Open secularism” would not confine religious expression to the private sphere and would allow state employees to wear religious signs unless they wield some coercive authority (judges, police officers, etc.). Above all, the report warns against the strict imposition of universal secular norms, calling for a case-by-case approach attentive to the constant need for exceptions. Québec’s separatist parties condemned the report for not going far enough towards the French model of “strict secularism.” And yet, the report’s recommendation to remove the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly was unanimously rejected by all parties, on the grounds that it remains an important symbol of Québec’s “historical patrimony.” More importantly, this focus on the headscarf and other “visible religious signs” promotes a spatialized model of the public sphere that concerns itself only with what can be seen of religion, ignoring the more significant but invisible ways in which religion ramifies. Scholars of religion like Robert Mager, for instance, stress the “profound and durable influence of the structures of Christian thought on [Québec] culture,” which continue to make themselves felt in the value Quebecers place on the welfare state, social solidarity, authority, order, and humanism. In other words, while Quebecers are notoriously anticlerical, this does not mean that they are post-religious. Removing the visible signs of religion will not be enough to disentangle the Gordian knot between religion and culture in Québec. Recognizing this significance of the Catholic heritage for the province’s collective identity, another commentator therefore asks what I believe is the crucial question for Québec as it struggles to elaborate its secular identity: “How far should secularism extend without it becoming the gravedigger of our history? How can we be secular without losing our memory . . . our reason for being a collectivity?”