(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Israel isn’t the only Western country debating the relationship between religion
and the state. In fact, this is becoming one of the hottest issues across Europe
and North America, brought to the forefront by changing demographics in the
West: its social make-up becoming more and more multicultural, multi-ethnic and
Canada is certainly not immune, especially its
French-speaking province of Quebec. The latest example is the debate over the
Quebec government’s decision to soon table a “Charter of Secularism,” with the
purported goal of clarifying the rules of a society that is becoming more and
more religiously diverse.
Sadly, the current government’s approach
suggests that any public expression of a minority religion is seen by many –
including by some influential figures of the current Quebec government – as an
encroachment by religion on the public sphere, whereas any Catholic
manifestation is said to be part of Quebec’s heritage.
Last week, the
minister responsible for the Charter of Secularism, Bernard Drainville, said
that he considered the temporary waiver of restrictions on street parking in a
district of Montreal during Shavuot “privileged treatment.” He appeared on
numerous TV and radio shows across the province, repeating in interview after
interview that this eminently modest exception was unacceptable. His view was
echoed by many populists, happy to denounce this “privilege” given to the
The Jewish community of Quebec was united in its outrage over the
troubling on-air insinuations. Eric Maldoff, president of the Center for Israel
and Jewish Affairs (Quebec), captured the indignation of local Jewry:
“Politicians and the media have a duty to ensure that the political and societal
debate on secularism does not denigrate, nor stigmatize the Jewish community of
Quebec, which has lived in Quebec while respecting its laws and social norms for
two and a half centuries.”
We never heard Minister Drainville when
Catholic churches across the province organized “Marches of Forgiveness” on Good
Friday, during which streets are closed and police officers are on duty for
hours while Catholic parishioners re-enact the 12 stations of the cross. Dozens
of municipalities in Quebec have customized parking regulations for Christmas
and Easter, to ensure people are not ticketed on those special days.
when a benign act of neighborliness benefits a minority – here the Jewish
community – similar treatment becomes unacceptable. Populist sentiments were
fired up by an elected minister at the expense of the Jewish community.
Drainville continues to claim that the Charter of Secularism will alleviate
social divisions and yet, with his remarks, he effectively intensified those
The Francophones’ situation in North America is
precarious, representing only two percent of the North American population
(about the same number as Jews, and we are all well acquainted with the
challenge of assimilation within that community).
French Quebec is
situated beside the most powerful linguistic and cultural (not to mention
political, economic and military) hegemon in modern history.
reality, some fears regarding group continuity are normal, if not
To my knowledge, Quebec is the only society that is both a
minority enclave and a high immigration society. According to an official report
produced following hearings on reasonable accommodations for minority groups
written by widely respected intellectuals Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard,
since the end of the 1940s, Quebec has consistently been one of the top 10
industrialized societies in terms of per capita immigration.
rejected independence in referendums (1980 and 1995), while not fully buying
into a broader pan-Canadian vision, Quebeckers are debating who they are, what
their society stands for, and what ultimately constitutes their core values. The
relationship between state and religion does indeed need to be clarified in view
of the massive changes Quebeckers are experiencing. There needs to be separation
– and clarification – between the two spheres.
And of course secularism
cannot be built on a tabula rasa. A society is not a blank canvas. It comes with
a history and a personality. While Quebec is now the least religious society in
North America, historically there is no doubt that it was highly influenced by
the Catholic Church.
However, if one considers any expression of religion
acceptable as long as it is Catholic but unacceptable if it is Jewish (or any
other minority religion), one will logically diminish the rights of minorities –
a prospect most Quebeckers would surely view as abhorrent. Secularism should not
be used as an instrument to encourage minorities to obscure their traditions
(which, by and large, are entirely compatible with a modern pluralistic
democracy) and simply disappear.
Catholicism has unquestionable deep
cultural and historical roots in Quebec, something the Jewish community has
always accepted. I would not dream of calling for the removal of the iconic
cross from Montreal’s Mount Royal or change the names of numerous towns and
villages that bear Catholic saints’ names. However, it is crucial that the same
rules apply for all public expressions of faith.
Jews have been in Quebec
for more than 250 years. They belong to Quebec. They are part of
Quebec. After a quarter millennia, Judaism is also a significant part of
The debate going on in Quebec is a preview of what other
high-immigration Western societies will likely go through. While it is of course
legitimate to debate the place of religion in any society, no such discussion
should be used to score political points at the expense of minorities. To do so
is to play a very dangerous game.
The author is general counsel and a
senior government adviser for the Centre consultatif des relations juives et