Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix

Peter Stockland: Legault fails to grasp faith’s central role

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  • November 27, 2020

Truer words have never been spoken than Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix’s methodical castigation of the Quebec government failure to consult the province’s religious believers on COVID-19 planning.

The primate’s message delivered on the Feast of Ste. Anne last summer is now ringing around Premier Francois Legault’s tone deaf ears once again. This time its echo is non-Christians chastising the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) leader for his well-intended, but ultimately insensitive, plan to give Quebecers a COVID lockdown break during Christmas.

Legault announced on Nov. 19 that the province will enter into a “moral contract” with residents. If they self-quarantine for a week before and a week after Christmas, they can ignore lockdown edicts and gather in groups of up to 10 friends and family members from Dec. 24 to 27. The premier acknowledged risks but said they’re justified because “family is at the heart of our nation.”

The plan provoked a less than holly-jolly response from Jewish and Muslim groups. They justifiably noted Legault and his government also insist the heart of the nation is its avowed secularity. How, they asked, does secularism square with the COVID exemption carving out special space for Quebecers who celebrate Christmas, even if the holiday is treated more as an excuse for hedonism than a commitment to religious observance?

“It’s a reminder that minority religions are not taken as seriously as the majority,” Rabbi Lisa Gruschcow, of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, told the Montreal Gazette. “There is this constant push and pull of Quebec calling itself a secular society, but the four days they chose are the days people are celebrating Christmas.”

Rabbi Gruschcow emphasized the contradiction by pointing to Quebec’s Bill 21, which forbids government employees such as teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job. Legault’s plan, however, also seeks to accommodate students during the time when Christians traditionally celebrate the birth of Our Lord.

“We are shifting the school schedule, but God forbid there should be a teacher with a hijab in the classroom,” she said.

Yusuf Faqiri of the National Council of Muslim Canadians called the double-standard by its true name.

“Members of the Jewish and Muslim communities have followed the rules, as we should, but why is there a double standard? It’s very disappointing,” Faqiri said, noting that for the first time his religious community was forbidden from celebrating Eid at a mosque or hosting family gatherings.

Cardinal Lacroix used the same language of double-standard when he pointed out how Catholic churches were prevented from celebrating funerals even as secular funeral companies that proliferate in Quebec were given permission.

“Despite our protests, the authorities have always turned a blind eye to this reality,” he said.

There is some difference of degree, though not of kind, between the response of non-Christian religious communities now and the cardinal’s message then. His ultimate target was political blindness and deafness to the needs of all spiritual traditions rather than on the basis of majority-minority status.

The current response, however, underscores his central point: The province’s political class has lost the thread when it comes to the importance of religious life in Quebec’s overall life. Its repeated genuflection to a poorly understood and articulated secularism matches its wilful ignorance of this reality: Quebec is a society rich with religious traditions and, more, flesh-and-blood religious believers.

The cardinal’s clear and powerful words in his Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré exhortation deserve repeating. Indeed, they’re worth turning into fridge magnets or sky writing if that brings his wisdom home:

“Spiritual needs are an integral part of human life for those who manifest that need — and there are many still in Quebec; all these people deserve to be treated with respect, to be considered by their government. Our faith communities are not just places of prayer. They are also places of support, of mutual aid at the social, family and human levels.

“I confess that the timidity with which our government has avoided any open and serene dialogue with the leaders of faith communities does not seem to me to be healthy for our Quebec society. Let me be clear: We are not claiming any privileges from the government. Believers are full-fledged citizens. They are women and men involved in all areas of human life in the Quebec we love.”

Four months later, the Quebec government’s refusal to hear that wisdom has it in hot water with Jewish and Muslim leaders as well. Truly, what will it take for Premier Legault and his colleagues to listen and learn? 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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