Secularism Betrayed, Part II

How Conformism Trumped Principle and Set Secularism Back Decades in Canada
Part II: Independence and Separatism

Minor format changes 2021-07-14

This three-part blog was written in January 2015 and intended for an international readership. Its tone is pessimistic. Since then, the Supreme Court of Canada decision of April 15th 2015, banning prayers at municipal council meetings, has major implications for the future of secularism in Canada and has renewed optimism among secularists.

Independence and Separatism

Sommaire en français Le débat autour de la Charte de la laïcité proposée par le gouvernement péquiste a été rendu plus difficile par le projet souverainiste de ce parti. Le PQ étant une formation centre-gauche qui a formé des gouvernements plusieurs fois depuis 1976, son souverainisme est devenu de plus en plus hypothétique avec le passage du temps. De tous les principaux partis politique provinciaux et fédéraux au Canada, le PQ est parmi les plus progressistes et est certainement le plus laïque. La laïcité et la souveraineté sont deux questions indépendantes l’une de l’autre, en principe du moins, mais le fait qu’un parti propose les deux à la fois brouillait les cartes. Quoique l’on puisse penser du programme souverainiste, les termes « raciste », « fasciste », etc. employés par ses plus féroces opposants ne sont que diffamation. Des calomnies semblables ont été librement recyclées pour vilipender les pro-Charte aussi. La situation a aussi été compliquée par le fait que plusieurs éléments de la gauche, traditionnellement laïque, trahissent depuis quelques temps leurs propres principes en s’accointant avec les communautés religieuses, surtout la musulmane, même de tendance islamiste. Cela a permis aux anti-Charte d’accuser faussement les pro-Charte de sympathie avec la droite politique. Malgré un appui important pour la Charte parmi la population québécoise, l’opposition des médias était souvent virulente. Au Canada hors-Québec, la réaction a été encore pire, l’angoisse et l’hostilité suscitées par le projet souverainiste du PQ se transformant facilement en haine pour sa Charte et pour les partisans de la laïcité. Deux associations supposément laïques ont pris position contre la Charte, trahissant ainsi le « secularism » qu’il prétendaient prôner.

So far this article has not yet mentioned an issue which should be irrelevant for any debate on secularism but which became unavoidable in the context of the Charter: the question of Quebec independence. The government which proposed the Charter was that of the Parti Québécois (PQ), a party which promotes the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada to form an independent republic.

The PQ can be described as a centre-left formation, with social-democratic leanings. It first came to power in the province in 1976. In the intervening four decades it has been the elected government several times. It has held and lost two referenda on Quebec sovereignty, the second one only narrowly. With the passing years the PQ has become rather mainstream, its independence project pushed ever further onto the back burner, becoming increasingly hypothetical. Nevertheless, this core element of the PQ’s program continues to generate enormous anxiety and hostility among many Canadians. That hostility was expressed with a vengeance during the Charter “debate” although that word is far too refined to describe the caustic uproar which ensued.

Among all parties elected to government at the provincial or federal level in Canada in the last few decades, the PQ is arguably among the most progressive and certainly the most secular. For example, it was a PQ government which, in December 1977, only a year after winning its first election, made Quebec the first jurisdiction in Canada to add “sexual orientation” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in its human rights legislation. A more recent example is the low-cost flat-rate day care program instituted by a previous PQ government (and now scrapped by the newly elected Liberal Party government).

As secularists we should not have to deal with a question such as whether Quebec should become independent or remain a member of the Canadian federation. The issue of separating Quebec from Canada is of no direct relevance to the question of separating religion from the state. But in the context of the proposed Charter that distinction quickly proved to be a luxury. Secularists were unavoidably confronted with the conflation of the two issues.

Now, one might consider the idea of Quebec independence to be unrealistic, misguided or utopian. One might consider it to be a dangerous and even reprehensible pipedream because of the political and economic instability that could very well result. However it is not racist, xenophobic, fascist nor any of a myriad of similar colourful adjectives used rather too often by those too lazy to attempt a rational response. Furthermore, anyone who uses such extreme language to denounce Quebec separatists is, in my opinion, a fanatic engaging in hate propaganda against a recognizable ethnic group, a behaviour which, in any other context, many would not hesitate to call “racist.” Indeed, this must be constrasted with the totally inappropriate and dishonest use by Charter opponents of the term “racist” to denigrate secularists.

The idea of Quebec going it alone is arguably a natural consequence of the coming-of-age process which began with the Quiet Revolution a half-century ago, a process of which secularization was and remains a key aspect. Thus, within Quebec there are many who support both independence and secularism. It is only natural that they would link the two and indeed that is to their credit because it indicates the progressive nature of their vision of an independent Quebec. Hence the conflation of the two issues.

So how should secularists have responded to this situation? The answer, I think, is obvious: the conflation must be resisted; the two issues must be distinguished. (Indeed, both the Quebec independentist camp and the federalist, i.e. anti-separatist, camp were divided in their opinions of the Charter.) Those who are secularists first and foremost must evaluate the Charter on its own merits, regardless of the independence question.

The Left, the Right and Secularism

Another issue which muddied the waters — and was dishonestly used by Charter opponents — is the disturbing ambivalence to secularism displayed in recent years by some left-wing organizations. Some on the left have abandoned the left’s traditional support for secularism in order not to offend “anti-imperialist” elements which are often Islamist. Two examples of this are Québec Solidaire (QS), a small independentist political party to the left of the PQ, and the Quebec Federation of Women, both of which oppose the ban on religious symbols in the public service.

The left has thus created a political vacuum — i.e. a lack of voices in support of the often popular secular program — which some right-wing political parties, especially in Europe, have opportunistically filled by pretending to support secularism. This has strengthened the far right by providing a pseudo-secularist veneer hiding an anti-immigrant or pro-Christian agenda. Even worse, it has allowed anti-secularists to misrepresent secularism and slander secularists by associating them with that right-wing agenda.

… secularism is a progressive and noble undertaking, … criticism of religion is a necessary and salutory aspect of both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Each and every religion must be subject to criticism, whether it be that of the traditional majority or of a minority, immigrant or otherwise.

Clearly, it is the duty of secularists to remind everyone that secularism is a progressive and noble undertaking, to explain that criticism of religion is a necessary and salutory aspect of both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Each and every religion must be subject to criticism, whether it be that of the traditional majority or of a minority, immigrant or otherwise.

To associate secularism with the political right is an obvious instance of the binary fallacy (or “either-or” fallacy), i.e. the misconception that a complex political question can be simplistically summed up as a conflict between two and only two camps. There are not two sides to every story; rather there are many “sides,” perhaps an infinite number. The spectrum of political positions with respect to secularism includes at least three principal camps (and even this is a simplification):

  1. Traditionalists who oppose secularism and support the traditionally dominant religion. An example: Mayor Jean Tremblay of Saguenay, a Catholic fundamentalist who insists on starting municipal council meetings with a prayer.
  2. So-called multiculturalists, i.e. ethnoreligious determinists who support extending religious privileges to a plurality of religions. The majority of Charter opponents, including pseudo-secularists who claimed to oppose it as secularists, fall into this camp. Indeed, this is very much the dominant ideology in Canada, especially outside Quebec.
  3. Secularists, such as member groups of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité, who oppose religious privilege and promote principles of universal human rights, including those principles which may conflict with religious tenets.

It must be noted that members of the first two camps, i.e. anti-secularists, sometimes present themselves as favouring some form of secularism. An example from the first camp would be the Front National in France, and, from the second, proponents of what is called in French “laïcité ouverte,” i.e. so-called “open secularism,” where the adjective “open” serves to negate and misrepresent the noun.

The Rest Of Canada

In Canada outside Quebec, media hostility to the Charter was even more virulent than within Quebec. Demonizing the PQ being a long-standing national sport in Canada for the reasons explained above, all-too-familiar accusations of intolerance and identity politics were freely recycled to denounce the bill. Nevertheless, a survey (“4 in 10 Canadians approve of Quebec charter of values, Similar number are uncomfortable with religious symbols”) conducted at the end of the summer of 2013 indicated that 43% of Canadians approved of the Quebec Charter and 64% agreed that “there are circumstances where an employer could restrict the wearing of religious symbols or clothing” as the government of Quebec was planning for its employees. In addition, a few weeks before the election, three secular organizations outside Quebec, including Humanist Canada, expressed some support for the Charter and for the ban.

However, two organizations with pretentions of representing secularists across Canada took a very different approach. In a press release dated September 13th 2013 (but which seems to have since disappeared from their web site), CFI Canada (CFIC) rejected the Charter, claiming that it “has the wrong aim, to take religion away from people” which was apparently their somewhat bizarre way of alleging that the Charter would threaten freedom of religion. Then, two months later, two CFIC spokespersons co-authored an op-ed piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail accusing the Charter of being “anti-religious bigotry” and a “threat” to Muslim veils! They then made the utterly surreal assertion that banning religious symbols and clothing for civil servants on duty would be comparable to discriminating against atheists in advertising. In a fundraising letter at the end of 2013, CFIC voiced its “concerns about the Quebec government’s misinterpretation of the principles of secularism.” Clearly they have things backwards. It is CFIC which misunderstands secularism and needs to learn a few basics from those Quebecers who have been working diligently towards that goal for many years, starting decades before CFIC even existed.

For its part, the very inaptly named Canadian Secular Alliance (CSA) issued a press release in November 2013 opposing the Charter because of the ban on religious symbols, claiming that religious displays by employees on duty are of no significance. CSA also faulted the Charter for not addressing various exemptions and subsidies which benefit religions, thus studiously ignoring the fact that the Charter established principles which would have greatly facilitated such measures in future, indeed setting the stage for the repeal of such privileges.

Next blog: “Secularism Betrayed, Part III

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