A crisis over parking?

Ongoing debate questions whether minorities are paying the price in Quebec’s debate over the place of religion.

Jewish culture (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Jewish culture
(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 multi-religious.
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 Jews.
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.
But 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 very tensions.
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.
Given this reality, some fears regarding group continuity are normal, if not healthy.
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.
Having twice 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 Quebec.
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 israéliennes.