Last fall, an event took place in Verdun that could be a metaphor for the changing face of Quebec.
Nov. 4, 2012, was the last time members of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 4 marched from the local cenotaph—a statue of a First World War soldier—to the Great War Memorial Hall on Verdun St.
The legion building, opened in 1929, is now the Verdun Islamic Centre, a busy mosque and community hall for the area’s growing Muslim population.
Norman Cornett, a former McGill professor and an expert in Quebec history and nationalist development, cited the mosque as an example of transformation, and the choices we have to make as we debate the proposed Quebec Charter of Values.
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Unitarian Church of Montreal
A changing Quebec
“Are we going to fight reality, or are we going to work with it?” he asked. “Ideologues try to make reality fit their agenda. Realists say we’ve got to come to terms with what’s happening.
“Why does Quebec have to adopt the Old World attitude and mentality of France, with its colonial past, and impose a severe dress code that would bar public servants from wearing the hijab, turban or kippah?”
Although public-opinion surveys indicate support among francophones for the proposal has diminished, there are many, particularly off-island, who favour a secular government devoid of religious symbols.
It’s not just secularism
To Cornett, who wrote his PhD thesis on the thought of nationalist historian Lionel Groulx, the proposal boils down to another “nation-building” measure.
It is designed, he says, to implant the idea that Quebec is uniquely French-speaking and its heritage uniquely Christian—a monolithic view of Quebec that may be intensified as a result of the review the Parti Québécois has ordered of history courses at all education levels below university.
Will the role of linguistic and ethnic minorities and aboriginal peoples be further under-valued? he asks.
He said the formal statement made last month by the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops condemning the ban on wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by public servants.
Cornett said that the Bishops challenged the statement by PQ leaders that the crucifix should remain in the National Assembly because it’s part of Quebec’s heritage.
“The crucifix is much more than a heritage object, or a symbol—it is an expression of faith,” Msgr. Noël Simard of Valleyfield said at the time.
Like all ideologies, Cornett notes, nationalism can constitute a religion, and in their massive PR campaign, the government underlines its “sacred” mission of advancing Quebec’s higher interests.
One ad reads: “Church, Synagogue, Mosque—it’s all sacred.” The next panel adds, “religious neutrality of the state, male-female equality—this is also sacred.”
To Cornett, it adds up to a blatant attempt to turn nationalism into a quasi-religious credo, even as the Quebec and Canadian rights charters already guarantee male-female equality.
The importance of immigrants
“Needless to say, the charter campaign will not draw more immigrants to Quebec, which is necessary to maintain our standard of living, since the fertility rate here is below replacement level.”
In 2011, Quebecers represented 23 per cent of Canada’s population but over the previous five years was only getting 19 per cent of new permanent residents, according to Statistics Canada.
We also are an aging society, he observes: From 2006 to 2011, the proportion of seniors increased faster in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec than in the rest of Canada.
“What the PQ government is doing is a rear-guard action to save the day for the francophone Christian Quebecers,” Cornett said.
“Quebec cannot make it without immigrants. They come as fully formed human beings, with their language, ethnicity, gender, religion and culture, and we’re asking them to divide themselves into nice neat categories? That is not the human condition, which is organic.
He says he is most concerned about the charter’s attack on acquired rights for institutions and individuals—the fact that city councilors, teachers and hospital workers already wear kippas, hijabs, turbans and other visible religious symbols.
“You’ve got a fight on your hands when you try to remove acquired rights that have existed for decades or longer,” Cornett said.
To those who see the hijab as a symbol of male-domination, Cornett asks: “Do we assume that because a woman wears a veil that she is not a feminist?”
Implementing the impossible
“If the state thinks it can come in and say, ‘this is good and this is bad,’ in a post-modern world, the state’s got another thing coming.”
PQ advocates are wrong in painting the charter as being in line with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when francophone Quebecers had one of the highest fertility rates in the Western world, he said.
“The fastest growing groups in Quebec are immigrants and natives,” he notes.
Cornett concluded with a quote from German theologian Paul Tillich, who said: “Religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of religion.”
Quebec is going to have a mighty fight on its hands in attacking faith communities by proposing to restrict the expression of their profound beliefs, he predicted.
“Secularism wants to create a false dichotomy between religion and culture. It ain’t that easy. In governance, as in medicine, the guiding principle should be Primum non nocere—first do no harm. That should inform the government’s approach to the charter.”