In separation of church and state, which institution is being protected?

Sara Miller Llana

Seeba Chaachouch had never pictured her future on the prairies. The third-year law student from Montreal had always envisioned herself practicing in her home province of Quebec.

But that changed after Quebec banned some civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job – and Ms. Chaachouch, who wears a hijab, saw an ad in her local newspaper from Manitoba’s government wooing Quebecers like herself.

“I’m not going to just take my stuff and leave for Manitoba immediately, but it is something to consider, whether it is Manitoba or Toronto or any other province in Canada,” she says on a recent day on her campus at McGill University, “a place that respects diversity or embraces it, lives with it and is happy about it.”

Placed by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister in November, the ad was a political statement more than a recruitment effort. It was called “21 reasons why you will feel at home in Manitoba,” a play on the controversial Bill 21 that was adopted in June. The law bans some civil servants in Quebec from wearing what it describes as “religious symbols” – which authorities have said will apply to hijabs for Muslim women, turbans for Sikhs, and crosses for Christians – to keep religion out of the government sphere. It’s the first ban of its kind in North America.

Reason No. 21 is what stood out the most for Ms. Chaachouch: “Manitobans embrace diversity and know that multiculturalism is a strength.”

The ad predictably angered supporters of the bill, who see it as another example of “Anglo” Canada misunderstanding its French-speaking minority. Yet as Quebec follows other European countries to have enacted similar limitations, critics say the law is outdated in increasingly diverse Canada. And while the law wins votes, it could also backfire, they say, in a province where labor is needed and diversity is increasingly a fact of life that depends on peaceful co-existence. Many of Quebec’s religious minorities come from French-speaking immigrant families who were sought to help bolster the French language.

“There is a deep structural contradiction that [Quebec’s leaders] are facing. And none of the measures they are taking is going to address this dilemma,” says Abdie Kazemipur, author of “The Muslim Question in Canada.” “It is out of date with the realities on so many different fronts.”

Protection of religion, or protection from religion?

Quebec’s anxieties over how to integrate minorities into a French-speaking population – one that is itself a minority within North America – have grown since the 2000s, and unease over language has been eclipsed by unease over religion. Various political parties have proposed bans on symbols in the name of public security (in the case of full head coverings) or gender equality.

But none of them was successfully implemented until this summer, after François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won provincial elections and legislated the secularism law, a key platform. Even as it faces court challenge at home, the federal election highlighted its popularity, with the surprise surge of the Bloc Québécois, which supports it.

Outside Quebec, the law clashes with Canada’s notion of itself as a haven of multicultural tolerance, although polling shows support for such bans across Canada – 44% in other provinces, according to a September Leger survey, compared with 64% in Quebec. And it was only tepidly criticized during the federal race – in part from fear that it will raise Quebec’s defenses and rekindle separatism, which has been politically dormant, and for fear of losing votes in the populous province. Yet public commentary and columns continue to vociferously condemn it as racist, while Quebec maintains it has nothing to with discrimination.

The gulf traces back to different concepts of what constitutes secularism. In English Canada, like in the United States, secularism is understood as separation of church and state that protects religious minorities. In Quebec, laïcité, a principle rooted in the French Revolution, is more broadly understood as protection of state from religion. Defenders of Bill 21 trace it back to the province’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which battled against Roman Catholic hegemony. “In Anglo-Saxon countries, people cannot understand laïcité, because for them, it’s the government intervening,” says Frederic Bastien, a Quebec historian, “whereas in Latin countries like France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, laïcité serves to protect people from religion.”

“It is not about race. It’s not about ethnicity,” he adds. “It’s about religion in the public sphere.”

That argument is challenged as a distortion of history, though, as the fight against the Catholic Church’s power never encompassed individual expression of religion, even at work. And in fact while the law may score votes, complaints about authority figures wearing religious symbols are scant. “It’s an answer to a non-question,” says the Rev. Michael Coren, a Toronto-based writer who has criticized the law.

Others have called hypocrisy, underlined recently when Mr. Legault met with the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and told him blithely that all French Canadians are Catholic.

The primary concern of cultural survival

Secularism laws are also written from a Christian perspective that tends to misinterpret how hard it is to separate self from symbol in some religions, argues Efe Peker, an expert on state-religion relations at the University of Ottawa. “For a Muslim woman, separating the veil from herself is not the same thing as not wearing a cross for a Christian woman,” he says.

Ms. Chaachouch only started wearing a veil in her later teens, but now she wouldn’t conceive of taking it off, which could conflict with her future goals, one of which is to practice criminal law. “I’ve always been very modest in the way I dress. And when I tried it on, it just spoke to me,” she says. “I felt like, this is adding to my modesty, and I love that.”

Her parents are from Lebanon, educated in French, and the type of immigrant the province has sought to help preserve French language and shore up the economy as fertility rates decline. But seeking immigrants, primarily from former French colonies, brought in cultural and religious diversity that turned secularism into a rallying call in the province – something that wasn’t a point of mobilization during the Quiet Revolution.

“The language problem was partially resolved. But if you fast-forward 25 years, then the unintended consequence is that these people turned out to be Muslims, with the religious difference taking over the linguistic difference as the primary concern of cultural survival,” says Dr. Peker.

The multiculturalism has been official policy in Canada since the 1970s. But in Quebec it was seen from the start as an attempt to dilute Francophone influence, rendering French Canadians one of many cultures. Instead they argue for “cultural convergence,” which Guillaume Rousseau, a constitutional law professor at Sherbrooke University who advised the CAQ government on Bill 21, says places French-speaking culture as the official one, while leaving room for others. To that end, Bill 21 is a perfect example, he says.

“That doesn’t mean that all other cultures are forbidden,” Dr. Rousseau says. “This society is more diverse. Great. Now we need to make sure that in some places it’s all about common values.”

But that kind of rhetoric confounds Ms. Chaachouch. “I do really feel excluded as a result of this because I was born here. I was raised here. I speak the language. I went to school here,” she says. “So when people ask me to respect our values, I’m just confused. ... It is a secular state. I respect that. I agree with that, and even if I’m wearing my religious symbol and I walk in to work, it means absolutely nothing for anybody else.”

On Jan. 1, the CAQ government also began “values” tests for some potential immigrants, fulfilling another key campaign pledge.

“Reactive ethnicity”

Defenders of Bill 21 argue that such bans are feminist, and some Muslim women have put their support behind it, happy to remove headscarves. But it’s also generated what University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz, who does comparative research on Muslim integration in France and Canada, has called “reactive ethnicity.”

In France, which first outlawed conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in 2004 and full face coverings in public in 2011, some women have felt forced to withdraw from mainstream society, while others have donned headscarves increasingly as a form of protest. “These women were feminists,” says Dr. Reitz. “They were expressing their strong sense of identity with France and the feeling that they should be able to wear whatever they want.”

Quebec’s law might be an outlier in North America, but it’s increasingly familiar in Europe. As many jurisdictions have followed France, from Belgium to Austria to Denmark to Quebec, supporters here say they are on the right side of history.

But Dr. Kazemipur, who is also a professor at the University of Calgary, says that their popularity does not equate to solution. “Authorities say, ‘We want you to put your religion outside the door before you enter the classroom or your workplace,’ but that is not how religions function.”

While Dr. Kazemipur’s research shows that policymakers overemphasize the role of Islam – after 9/11 immigrants once called Pakistani or Lebanese were suddenly labeled Muslim – his newer work shows that religion is finding a bigger place in Canadian society.

“In an environment like that, you cannot just legislate religion out,” he says. “If there are concerns about the lack of solidarity amongst people of different religious backgrounds, then the way to create that solidarity is to create the bonds and the emotional connections and the sense of belonging. With this kind of legislation, you will achieve the opposite.”

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