Quebec’s bill on religious symbols poses a new threat to Canada’s unity, the Toronto Star
In 1995, I joined tens of thousands of people who poured into Montreal to show Quebecers we didn’t want them to vote yes in a referendum to separate.
While historians would suggest that the Unity Rally wasn’t necessarily what convinced people to vote no to separation, it nonetheless symbolized the commitment of Canadians outside of Quebec to see our nation remain intact.
A large Canadian flag is passed through a crowd in this Oct. 27, 1995 file picture, as thousands streamed into Montreal from all over Canada to join Quebecers rallying for national unity three days before a referendum that could propel Quebec toward secession. (RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A quarter of a century later, we face a new kind of separatist threat emerging from Quebec. This time we face a separation from the very idea of what Canada represents and stands for: a beacon of peace and security where global diasporas contribute and participate freely in the nation’s success.
Instead of embracing this legacy, Quebec’s governing party has decided to finish the job that previous governments and political parties have toyed with over the last decade — to once and for all, scrub all visual symbols of religion from key areas of public service in the province.
For the first time in our nation’s history, members of a variety of communities will be officially forced to choose between their religion and their career aspirations. Though let’s not forget how Indigenous communities were once shamefully outlawed from practicing their own spiritual teachings in this country, too. Nor the various moments in our history when racism and xenophobia influenced immigration policy.
Now, in the name of laïcité, the Quebec government is arguing that freedom from religion is even more important than freedom of religion. We must view this latest legislation as a potential dagger in the heart of Canada’s national identity as a multicultural nation.
Renowned historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer noted decades ago in his oft-quoted essay “Visible Majorities” that the entire notion of multiculturalism may have actually saved Canada from further fragmenting along linguistic lines. At the time of Confederation, English and French communities were often in conflict. In fact, the relationship between Quebec and Ottawa was even described as being akin to two scorpions in a bottle.
Multiculturalism, wrote Dwyer, would later neutralize those scorpions. Instead of holding on to tribal loyalties, Canadians would instead embrace the diversities of its various newly arrived immigrant communities — their languages, cultures, religions, and traditions.
Author Erna Paris has similarly pointed out the centrality of multiculturalism to the story of Canada. “One of the most important reasons for Canada’s success is the fact that we have eschewed demands for total assimilation to a defined identity in favour of integration,” she wrote last year. “Integration is the foundation of the support we offer newcomers. Its most salient feature is that no one attempts to alter the core identity of an individual or group.”
Even Quebec’s own version of this policy, interculturalism, valued a human rights framework, pointed out University of Montreal academic Marie McAndrew in a 2007 analysis.
Now, Quebecers and newcomers belonging to religious minorities are anxiously wondering how they will fit in the province. This anxiety should extend beyond provincial boundaries. One of the premier’s own parliamentary assistants, Christopher Skeete, has already opined that the rest of Canada is due for a similar conversation.
This is why federal government action, or inaction, could forever impact the character of our country. Will it permit the province to override our cherished rights and freedoms, in defiance of careful and successful immigration policy that has made Canada one of the most successful models of integration in the world? Or will it explore every legal option in its toolbox to hold Quebec to human rights standards the country’s courts have painstakingly laid out over the past several decades?
Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt Charter challenges will be a stumbling block but it’s not unsurmountable.
As right-wing populism continues to threaten democratic values, Canadians will have to resist every effort that undermines our collective identity as a country where everyone is welcome and free to contribute to the very best of their ability. What we wear should never factor into the equation.
Will we manage to unite around principles of human rights and multiculturalism as we united decades ago in an effort to save our country? The answer will have far-reaching implications.