The major political issue this week has been the release of a Charter of Values in Québec. It has ignited an explosive debate nationwide that has centred around several questions, though the discourse is rather firmly entrenched in the notion of how much society must bend for the individual or how much the individual must bend for society. While there has been a decent amount of good writing on the topic, my fear is that certain terms and concepts are not being discussed well in many forms of conventional or social media. My post today will attempt to address some of these transgressions.
Secularism refers to a political ideology where religion and government are divorced from one another. As a policy it is dominant in the United States, Turkey, and France, where these societies struggle with how religion influences politics, social interaction, and the economy. Secularism manifests itself differently in different societies. In the United States, an example with which Canadians are rather familiar, it has largely been an attack on other religions while reinforcing a deeply Christian past. In my view this is due to the fact that secularism in the United States was all about religious tolerance for different Protestant Christian groups. In France and Turkey, secularism has largely targeted all religions, in a way that it similar to what is happening currently in Québec.
As for multiculturalism, it is a policy, not a reality. Diversity is a fact of modern society and multiculturalism refers to a specific way of integrating others, and in Canada, as with the rest of the world, there are serious debates about the degree to which multiculturalism is in fact successful. Mind you a large portion of it is uninformed, xenophobic, political nonsense, but much of it is careful consideration of what other alternatives might be. Fundamentally, the idea should be that multiculturalism, while I support it steadfastedly, is not infallible. There could be something better and reasonable discourse on the matter should be encouraged rather than believing that it is outright the only way. In order to evaluate it you have to examine alternatives, and that's precisely what comparative politics is all about. To start, it's helpful to understand what other jurisdictions have multicultural policies. The sad truth is, not many. Secularism is billed as the alternative to multiculturalism, but establishing this as the binary is really useless since that barely covers the issue. Moreover, secularism and multiculturalism are not opposites.
Another concept that I feel is not being unpacked is the idea of how different Québec and Canada are, particularly in terms of identity. It's no secret that most Canadians tend to feel a sense of superiority over Americans based on the treatment of minorities. I'd argue that anglophone Canadians feel the same way about Québec in a lot of ways. It reinforces for Canadians that they are superior because an issue like this is not happening there. It allows Canadians to forget about the ways in which they marginalise others that may be less blatant.
This otherness is amplified by the limited knowledge of Québec's history by outsiders. As someone who is a Quebecer and who teaches Québec history, I can say that I have a slightly more intimate knowledge of Québec than the average anglophone. What most people tend to miss is that Québec is rather different from Canada in a lot of meaningful ways, not the least of which being that since the 1960s it has taken a sufficiently different approach to the organisation of society than Canada has. For the most part, it has actively sought to remove the church from all facets of formal power. There is an open acknowledgement among francophones of the historical role played by Catholicism, though the major current is that religion does not mix with public life. This is highlighted in the controversy about the crucifix in the National Assembly. Given that Québec (at least outside Montréal) is relatively free of cultural minorities, a secular tradition has not posed many serious problems until recently.
On a practical level, I really can't condone what Québec is proposing. Nor can I support other imperatives like the FIFA scandal from the spring. The Charter is obviously about women covering their faces, and it is therefore a clearly Islamophobic move. Division amongst society is relatively high, and that all of Québec is being admonished as on board with this troubles me. There are segments of all societies that hold attitudes that reinforce oppression. What's particularly interesting is that a wide gap has developed between so-called "conservative" and "liberal" feminists. Conservatives connect Islam to sexism while liberals grab onto the notion of choice. There are no clearly drawn lines when it comes to interpretation, and this is again why it's such a difficult element.
Lastly, I have been trying to understand this as an economic issue. It seems to be pretty far removed from the realm of the economy, though it is expressly reinforcing notions of who can and should work: the secular person. Work is a key part of economic activity, and this is therefore an important connection in a story that seems to not be talked about from the financial perspective. In a world where Québec is seldom mentioned outside of talking about separatism, this move has garnered serious attention. And perhaps it's most interesting because one of the major elements of this scandal is that, in my opinion, it is designed to be a wedge issue. The Parti Québecois has failed to gain traction amongst francophones on the economy, language, or climate change. The issue of secularism is something that has a significant power to shape the way that Québecers think of themselves. The federal government is already preparing itself for a fight, and Québec society, in many regards, seems to feel ready for it.