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Glen Argan: Can Bill 21 ignite new spark of faith?

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  • June 27, 2019

Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec governments have been bent on driving religion out of their culture. Ironically, this campaign has co-existed with the broader campaign to preserve Quebec’s uniqueness in an English-speaking North America. 

I say “ironically” because it was the Catholic Church which for centuries provided one of the strong pillars which made Quebec proud. The Church ran the province’s hospitals and schools and gave Quebec a way of understanding reality and society that was unique on the continent. The expulsion of the Church from running some of the province’s major institutions left the province’s residents with the highest taxes in North America as the government took over the work that had long been performed gratis by priests and nuns.

The Quebec culture had been rooted in faith, family and language. Once the faith was jettisoned and the birth control pill reduced the size of families to less than replacement rate, language was left as the one wobbly pillar on which the culture balanced precariously.

So began the language wars, the series of laws passed by the National Assembly to eliminate the public use of non-francophone languages. The heightened emphasis on the French language had the benefit of convincing many Canadians in the other nine provinces to become bilingual. But the Quebec culture, although radically altered, continued to retain its uniqueness.

Somewhat. The domination by large corporations, the placid assumption that economic growth trumps all other values and the rule of computer technology tended to make Quebec more like English North America than it had been in the past. Perhaps the largest difference now was Quebec’s commitment to the ideology of laïcité — driving every hint of the transcendent out of public life.

The Quebec government’s Bill 21 — An Act Respecting the Laïcité of the State — won final approval from the National Assembly in late June. The act bars the hiring of people who wear religious symbols from a long list of government jobs as well as denying these people access to government services such as using libraries and public transit. 

In a limited way, the act is welcome. People who work for the government should not be able to hide their faces from those they serve. Beyond that, the new law denies the most basic human freedom — the right to freedom of religion. It imposes a public religion, one without God, on the populace. It promotes the lie that the human person is complete in themselves, better off without listening to the haunting cry of the heart to know our ultimate destiny. Or, if you are going to bother with such foolishness, keep it to your homes and temples.

Quebec society is not unique in its secularism. Where I live — in Alberta — a movement also exists to rid the province of tax-supported Catholic schools and hospitals. Quebec has just been more diligent and aggressive in its secular evangelization.

The Quebec law may have been specifically directed at the growing Muslim population. In that respect, it is impossible to distance Bill 21 from the Quebec City mosque shooting less than a year and a half ago in which six worshippers were killed and 19 others injured. The law does not promote such atrocities, but it does console those who would discriminate against Muslims and those of other religions.

Quebec Premier François Legault claims people have stopped him in the street to say Bill 21 has made them proud to be Quebecers. Why would one be proud to discriminate against anyone? Despite the claims of secularists that the most human world is one without religion, laïcité contains a deep-rooted nastiness, a desire to exclude those who do not share its flat perception of what it means to be human.

Quebec culture is badly off-centre and Bill 21 is but one indication of its narrowness. This is a society that once had great richness even if it did need to evolve in a manner so that Church institutions left behind their repressive features.

Today, a large crucifix hangs in the National Assembly, its existence defended as a symbol of the province’s heritage. However, faith is not a museum piece. It is alive or it is nothing. One can only hope the government’s persistent attempts to squelch public expressions of faith instead spark new life in the faith which once was Quebec’s glory. It is on that faith that the future of its culture depends.

(Argan’s writings are available on his website, www.glenargan.com)

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