Quebec helpfully shows how NOT to do secularism

[This article was originally posted on School of Doubt.]

There is currently a fair bit of controversy over the ruling separatist government’s plans to institute a “Charter of Quebec Values” [note: as of this writing English version is incomplete and mostly still in French…quelle surprise] that would ostensibly put an end to the years-long question of what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities in the province.

The Marois government has framed the charter in terms of upholding a secular society in Quebec, and keeping religion separate from matters of state. Sounds great! Sign me up! I think we can all agree that separation of church and state is the bees knees.

But wait, what’s this you say? We’re keeping the giant crucifix in the National Assembly? Religious organisations still get to keep all their special tax breaks? And elected officials are exempt from all of the law’s requirements? Exactly how does this enforce secularism at all?

Ah, I see. We’re just purging state employees (including teachers) who happen to belong to minority religions. Good plan.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let’s look at exactly what the proposed bill does (from this CBC analysis):


  1. Bar public sector employees — including everyone from civil servants to teachers, provincial court judges, daycare workers, police, health-care personnel, municipal employees and university staff — from wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or other “ostentatious” religious symbols while on the job.
  2. Allow five-year opt-outs from the ban for certain organizations, but not daycare workers or elementary school teachers.
  3. Require that those receiving or providing government services uncover their faces.
  4. Exempt elected members of the Quebec legislature from the regulations.
  5. Amend Quebec’s human rights legislation, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, to specify limits on when someone can stake a claim for religious accommodation.


  1. Remove religious symbols and elements considered “emblematic of Quebec’s cultural heritage.” That includes: the crucifixes in the Quebec legislature and atop Mount Royal in Montreal, the thousands of religiously based geographic names (e.g. Saint-Louis-du-[etc]) and the names of schools and hospitals.
  2. Ban public sector employees from wearing small religious symbols like a ring with a Star of David, earrings with the Muslim crescent or a necklace with a small crucifix.
  3. Eliminate subsidies to religious private schools. The Quebec government currently funds about 60 per cent of the budgets of most of the province’s private schools, including parochial ones.
  4. Ban opening prayers at municipal council meetings, which was recommended by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report into cultural accommodation. The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in May that such prayers do not necessarily violate Quebec’s current human rights legislation.
  5. Eliminate property tax exemptions for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings.

While we’re at it, let’s just declare pork to be a “culturally integral national product” and require all public servants to eat a ham sandwich on Mondays. Keeping kosher or halal or vegetarian is, after all, just an ostentatious public display of values.

The official defense for this absurd violation of minority rights is that the French philosophy of secularism is different from the English one, and it’s not inherently worse to focus to focus policy on integration over pluralism.This argument is technically true: French secularism is distinct from the Anglo-American tradition and is much more rooted in the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution (and in Quebec, in resistance to many years of political and social domination by the Church).

And I might even be tempted to buy the argument if the charter contained any elements at all that actually targeted the Catholic Church. Banning “ostentatious crucifixes” doesn’t really cut it. If anything it seems to target (English-leaning) Italian and Greek communities, where such things are significantly more common than among the general population.

What’s most galling to me is that a (queer, leftist!) colleague of mine finds herself able to support this kind of targeted legislation on the grounds that, while she would prefer legislation that went further in severing the state’s religious ties (i.e. actually doing so at all), this kind of legislation is acceptable for now as a partial measure. As if somehow this is just a first step and the giant crucifix in the legislature is totally next on the chopping block once we take care of those troublesome Jewish schoolteachers.

Sorry, I don’t buy the “it just doesn’t go far enough” defense of the charter’s obvious and disproportional targeting of minorities. It’s like using “I don’t like civil marriage as an institution” to support gay marriage bans and pretending that one’s position is fair and consistent. At a certain point one has to acknowledge that citing an abstract general principle to support a targeted policy does nothing but provide cover to those motivated by bigotry.

Welcome to Hérouxville, everyone.

Featured image: Takashi Toyooka, with my added commentary.


Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

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  1. I was just talking about this with some friends, and then I heard about the protest in Montreal on the radio on my drive home, then I read this article on Skepchick, and then I saw my name at the bottom!

    I tend to agree with your analysis. Although it’s often hard to navigate the gap between legislation and the eventual implementation, I suspect the law would have little or no impact in places where it doesn’t matter, and a negative impact where it does. This is not reasonable, and it’s not accommodation.

    1. Thanks for the photo! Based on your photostream I thought you might appreciate us using it :)

      Let’s just say that I’d be willing to bet no one would be enforcing this for francophone Catholics on Ash Wednesday.

  2. I disagree with the proposed charter, but I really wish English critics did a bit of research and used a bit of, uh, critical thinking before being indignant about this. English Canadian privilege and entitlement is well and alive! Your anglo essence makes you automatically qualified on the topic.

    First off, the English version is not yet completed, and a cute little ‘quelle surprise’. I live in BC, an officially unilingual province, like Quebec (only New Brunswick has English and French as its official language at the provincial level). Well gee, ‘what a surprise’, there are no French version of any legislation ever in BC But yeah, keep complaining that Quebec is not issuing the English version on the same exact day as the French version. Not privilege at all.

    I live on the other side of the country, and it’s amazing the amount of misinformation circulating (particularly from the Globe & Mail and the National Post). Of course, Harper revels in this stuff. Good for him. It’s quite familiar to me, it always starts with Hitler analogies. Because of Bill 101. Hitler vs. public school in French for non-English speakers. Totalitarianism! Witch hunt! Complete lack of knowledge about historical oppression! Where have I seen this before?

    Where have I seen before this tendency to believe that if people can only do nothing at all about a problem, the problem does not exist (as English Canada is doing nothing at all about its incredible racism problem, generalized against First Nations, but racism is quite multicultural overall, from my experience living on both coasts and in the middle)? Well that would not be the in the skeptical community, wouldn’t it. That is a completely unfamiliar argument to all of us who have been frustrated with the trivialization of sexism.

    First, Herouxville’s mayor is a complete idiot, but after evidence was found that the entire controversy was planned with a provincial right wing party, the mayor admitted it was a publicity stunt. Bigoted mayor of a town of 1,300, yes. Evidence for more racism than in the rest of the country, not so much. Then, in this world where silence = no problems, the commission Bouchard-Taylor was another proof of racism. Of course, if a nation tries to reduce its racist elements publicly, it is a sign that they are ultra racist. Makes perfect sense.

    I have lived longer in English Canadian cities than in French ones, and I have yet to see the extent of accommodation to religious minorities that Quebec has. I lived in a neighbourhood (Outremont) where the snow was not removed on week-ends to accommodate the Hasidic community (cannot use ‘technology’ on the Sabbath). I can’t imagine anywhere else in Canada doing this.

    The French articles also mention what the charter would allow/prohibit, and it does not match your CBC article. I disagree with the charter either way, but I like facts. And I think saying ‘I don’t know’ is damn fine if you don’t know. As for multiculturalism, what is meant is clearly Trudeau’s multiculturalism. In other words, Quebec is against the primacy of English culture, and the levelling of all other cultures (including First Nations and French) to a folksy minority level. It’s not that hard to figure out why. Most Quebecois are against creating segregated ethnic neibourhoods like we have in the rest of Canada. I think their charter does just that, but being against multiculturalism does not mean being against different cultures. But I understand this is hard to see when you are a member of the cultural hegemon of the world. It is not an easy problem. But the solution proposed by Ottawa leads effectively to ‘why don’t you become English and assimilate already?’ (which, ironically, has not happened because of the huge political power the Catholic Church had until the 1960s).

    Finally, I do believe it is unfortunate that the many attempts by the legislature to remove the crucifix from the legislature has failed in the many times it has been introduced in the past 2 decades. However, the removal of the Mont-Royal landmark and a change of town names would be ridiculous. Robespierre’s Terror, much (reference to the change of Notre-Dame de Paris into a temple of reason)? Maybe we should correct that in Ottawa as well? After all, Parliament’s neogothic architecture is clerical. It would make absolutely no sense to destroy it for secularism, but I guess that’s the new flawless logic.

    Anyway, I’ll stop here, but it is quite annoying to see fellow progressive skeptics falling so quickly for remnants of colonial prejudices. Still well and alive, I guess.

    1. What is this I don’t even.

      List of things that no one is talking about here:

      Bill 101
      The atrocious treatment of First Nations people throughout Canadian history
      What federal parties have or have not said about the charter or Quebec generally
      What the National Post or the Globe and Mail have said about the charter or Quebec generally
      The architecture of the parliament building (uh…)

      I don’t think it’s out of bounds to comment on the fact that the English version of the site is shoddy and incomplete, especially given that many of the people it targets are part of historically anglophone communities (like Jewish residents of Outremont). Comparisons to BC here are absurd. BC does not have a sizable historical francophone minority that makes up about 7% of the population. A proper comparison would be to Ontario, but since they are generally pretty good about making things bilingual I guess that’s not so rhetorically useful to you, is it?

      Thank you I don’t need to be *splained about the meaning of multiculturalism in a Canadian political context. However based on your description (really? it’s a neo-colonial plot to destroy French culture?), perhaps I’m not the one who needs an explanation. Regardless, if you read what I wrote, I did not actually say that Trudeauist multiculturalism was the solution to this problem. What I said was that cultural integrationist rhetoric is being abused to give cover to what is essentially a purge of public sector employees who are obligated by their faith to wear certain garments or symbols, and who are likely to leave their jobs (or never go into public service in the first place) because of restrictions like this.

      No one actually said that we want a Robespierre-style burning of the monasteries. I did say that there is a distinctly French philosophy of secularism that is less inclined toward the protection of certain liberties in the public sphere in the interest of producing a more cohesive and harmonious society. I did not even say that philosophy is wrong–only that it is not what is happening here because the charter does not infringe on religion generally, but on specific minorities.

      No one actually said renaming everything with a religious reference would be a desirable outcome. It is simply on the list of things the charter does not do, which is true, and it’s hard not to notice that practically everywhere in Quebec is saturated with these kinds of religious references.

      If you have a source from the French media that gives another description of the charter’s effects, you could always actually provide it rather than asserting that I am wrong. I’d prefer Radio-Canada over anything owned by Quebecor because of the Péladeau family’s particular political slant.

      I’m not actually sure what you’re arguing here, really. You say you don’t support the charter but don’t say why, and then accuse me of being some kind of neo-colonial anglo-supremacist for arguing that…the charter is bad because it specifically targets the livelihoods of minorities? It is clear that you really want very badly to turn this into a debate over a different issue, but it’s off-topic and doesn’t do anything to clarify or advance the discussion. If you have an axe to grind about language politics (and seriously, French has won in Quebec! Resoundingly!), please do it somewhere else.

      1. “Most Quebecois are against creating segregated ethnic neibourhoods like we have in the rest of Canada.” What are you talking about? Nowhere in Canada are there “created segregated” ethnic neighbourhoods.

        1. (S)he means self-segregated ethnic enclaves, like Chinatowns etc. From an integrationist perspective these represent a failure to assimilate to the dominant culture and therefore a negative outcome of multiculturalist policies.

          1. My point is that self-segregated ethnic enclaves are NOT “segregated ethnic neighbourhoods” that are “created”. Government doesn’t legislate who can live where based on ethnicity, city planners don’t deliberately plan for or create segregated neighbourhoods, and people may choose to live wherever they want. Chinese people don’t have to live in Chinatown and non-Chinese people can live in Chinatown.

    2. Sorry I just have to add: the “officially unilingual” argument, followed by the inevitable reference to New Brunswick, is astonishingly common among certain people despite how ridiculous it is.

      Just getting the government to declare a place unilingual does not actually>/em> make the minorities disappear. You know that, right? And it doesn’t obviate the government’s moral obligation to take reasonable steps to communicate with its citizens, even if such an obligation is not constitutionally enshrined.

  3. I live in Québec, Montréal to be exact and most people I talk with are embarrassed by the government’s further attempts to make everyone the same. I am not a religious believer, nor am I offended by someone who believes or shows that they have a belief. The problem would be if their belief is imposed on me, which I have yet to encounter in public services here.

    The Separatist governments have shown that they want uniformity through many different laws, many of which may have actually been well intended on some scary level: wanting to preserve the French language in the province is understandable and I agree that French language first is only right. I like speaking French and this forces me to become better. The laws are now limiting Francophones (the French speaking population) more than anything else.

    The idea of keeping religious influence out of public service is actually not a bad idea; keeping the superficial image hidden, which is what this law does unfairly is xenophobic and narrow-minded. If you are scared that someone wearing a headscarf, kippah, cross or anything else, then you are imposing your beliefs of their own religion on them, and you are the one breaking the idea of keeping public services secular.

  4. I’m really glad to see this post on here!

    Anyway great points already made so my two cents I want to add is that I see the charter as a race based attempt at secularism. Jacques Parizeau complained that the separist vote was lost in part by the “ethnic votes”. It is clear there is a underlying racism in the movement.

    So I see this as racism not secularism.

  5. What bothers me most: in the name of making the government neutral, they will be prohibiting personal expressions of faith, while leaving actual governmental expressions intact in the name of “culture and history”. A secretary working in a government office and wearing a cross on her lapel, a head scarf, or a kippa, does not convey to me a government message; a cross on the wall of that same office does. But what we are told is that they will prohibit the former, while they leave crosses on government property and on the legislature because it’s “not really about religion, it’s about culture.” That’s disingenuous, if not simply dishonest.

    1. Exactly. There seems to be some kind of bizarre paranoia especially around the possibility of Muslim women teaching elementary school and using their veils/headscarves/etc. to proselytize (which…makes no sense at all but gets a whole paragraph on the official website).

      First of all, that’s already prohibited. Second of all, if someone really wanted to try and convert schoolchildren, enforcing a dress code would do nothing to change that. Not to mention that this is a vanishingly unlikely scenario and I’d be willing to bet that such a thing has never happened in Quebec or anywhere else because it is ridiculous.

    2. Exactly. If a giant cross is somehow cultural then how is a headscarf not cultural? Will Hasidic married women have to remove their wig? (That seems pretty cultural to me- I don’t think the OT specifically instructs them to wear neatly styled, high quality wigs). AFAIK, there are no religious scriptures that specifically outline the exact cut, color and make of a head covering, this is a culturally determined phenomenon that evolved to answer that need.
      They are certainly not dismantling enough actual govt. support for religious schooling & so forth, so yes, it really is both disingenuous on the part of some and outright dishonest on the part of others.

  6. I also live in Montreal, and this whole “secularism” nonsense is just a dogwhistle for the Islamophobia and xenophobia for which the separatists are famous. Don’t forget- this is hot on the heels of QC banning turbans (targeting Sikhs) while playing soccer in the name of “safety” while there are exactly zero incidences of any kind of turban related accidents or injuries on file. The FIFA overturned that, thankfully. Oh- they also tried to ban scarves on women while playing a while back, so, at least they discriminate equally on gender lines.
    The real irony here is that QC is desperate to increase its replacement population, and they actively seek french speakers to immigrate, but the places they are all coming from are Haiti, the Maghreb, various parts of Asia- populations that are in general not white and not christian, and this drives them CRAZY. They desperately want people to assimilate, but really, you can’t force people to just drop their culture, and they certainly won’t when certain population sectors are openly hostile to them. And as a note of just how far past consideration the First Nations people are in the consciousness of this current government, they don’t even show up on the chart of “bannable religious displays” (not that any of this is ok, and I’m in no way saying more people should be discriminated against).
    A lot of this head scarf mania falls squarely in “Great White Saviour” rhetoric, so even the supposedly progressive feminists have fallen into the trap of infantilizing WOC/Muslim women.

    1. We had friends who emigrated to Canada from France (Toulouse). They initially went to Quebec because they thought they’d feel more at home there.

      They were treated like dirt. The kids were picked on because they didn’t speak “proper French”.

      They wound up coming to Alberta where they were welcomed with open arms.

      1. Speaking of collars, what about priests and nuns at the government-funded parochial schools? Do they have to wear civvies?

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