What Critics of Quebec’s Ban on Face Coverings Get Wrong

Last October, the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 62 in an effort to settle the question of the religious neutrality of the Quebec state. This is often referred to in French as “laïcisation,” and is the completion of a long process through which Quebec public institutions entered the modern world. This process began with the Quiet Revolution of the the 1960s and continued with the replacement of religious school boards by secular ones and the secularization of health-care institutions. The law was understood in this context, and consequently well received, in the French-language media, but was decried in the English-language media as discriminatory against Muslims. Critics asked how a law enforcing religious neutrality was compatible with keeping a Christian cross in the National Assembly.

The new religious neutrality law requires all services requested or delivered by public institutions in Quebec be done with”face uncovered”; France and Belgium have more all-embracing laws in this regard. The law was passed nearly unanimously by the Quebec National Assembly, following a debate on religious neutrality within the governing Liberal Party and subsequently in the National Assembly that lasted more than a year.

Nineteen days after receiving Royal Assent, the new law was challenged in Quebec Superior Court on grounds that it is discriminatory (presumably against niqab-wearing Muslims) under the terms of the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms.

Given the near-unanimous support for the law in the National Assembly, reaction was intense. Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, the minister responsible for the law, announced that she would invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter if the Superior Court appeal succeeded. For her part, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced that she was determined to study the law to ensure that the rights of Canadian citizens are protected.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced that they would support the court challenge. Their legal brief, deposited shortly afterwards, was favourably received by Quebec Superior Court, which ruled that the law in its current form is discriminatory against members of a religion. However, the court delayed its final verdict until the regulations accompanying the law are proclaimed, which, as of this writing, has not taken place. The ruling Liberals may wish to avoid this becoming an issue in the Quebec election scheduled for October 1.

Freedom, Responsibility and the Uncovered Face

I contend that opponents of the religious neutrality law are addressing the wrong issue. It is not a matter of the law being discriminatory. It is whether our society continues to adhere to the basic precepts of Western civilization. Hence, the question should be: “Is concealing one’s face in public intercourse acceptable in a Western society?” When the question is posed in this way, the clear answer is no. Let me explain.

Our Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian civilization accords us a great deal of individual liberty. Most of us are not aware of the extent of these liberties until we find ourselves in a society that does not recognize them – for instance, the liberty to leave our country, a liberty that did not exist in the Communist bloc and is still lacking in contemporary China. With these individual liberties come reciprocal responsibilities: the right to a trial by a jury of our peers, for example, assumes the duty to serve on a jury if summoned. Our individual liberties are the freedom side of equivalent individual responsibilities; the responsibilities are the direct complement of our liberties.

To be individually responsible toward others we must be identifiable. The most elementary part of our identity is our face. We look at one another face to face; we look one another in the eyes. It is how we take the measure of one another. Once we reach adulthood our character is written in our face. We judge whether we should have confidence in the individual before us by his or her face. We use facial expressions to communicate with our peers; they are a more fundamental means of communication than the spoken word. A grimace, a frown, but especially a smile are elementary means of telling our story in civil society.

Refusing to present ourselves face to face before other members of our society is a violation of the reciprocity that comes with our liberty. It makes individual accountability impossible. Covering one’s face in public is simply not acceptable in Western society, even if it is acceptable in some non-Western, particularly Islamic, societies. (It is worth noting that Islamic practices emerged in the middle of the seventh century, much later than Western European society.)

The expectation that women cover their face reflects women’s lack of liberty. Defenders of the practice claim women cover their face as a choice expressing their religious beliefs. Opponents point to the effect of social pressure. This is not the real issue. It comes down to the fact that, in our society, freedom does not and cannot mean the right to withdraw from our responsibilities.

Gary Caldwell’s article was posted to the Inroads listserv, with an invitation to listserv recipients to respond. What follows is an edited selection of the responses.

From: Garth Stevenson | March 20

Gary Caldwell’s editorial is entirely sane and reasonable. I fully agree with him. Not all Muslims support face coverings – just a small extremist sect based in Saudi Arabia. If they think face covering is such a good idea, why do they only require women to do it, and not men? Obviously because they want to keep women in a subordinate position where they cannot participate fully in society or interact normally with other people.

The fact that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association supports the challenge to the law doesn’t surprise me at all. Those people never saw a court, a judge or a lawyer that they didn’t like. That is why I stopped donating money to them several years ago.

I hope Quebec does use the notwithstanding clause and I hope this encourages other provinces to do so in relation to this and other issues. The taboo against invoking this clause, which was put in the Charter for good reason, is totally absurd.

From: Pierre Joncas | March 20

Without reservation, I agree with both Gary and Garth. One further observation: The notwithstanding clause was included in the Charter in 1982 at the firm and unwavering insistence of the premiers of the prairie provinces, Sterling Lyon (Manitoba, PC), Allan Blakeney (Saskatchewan, NDP) and Peter Lougheed (Alberta, PC), on the grounds of preserving parliamentary sovereignty, most sensible grounds in my judgement. Their agreement was essential to Westminster’s acceptance of the Constitution Act. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would not have paid the slightest attention to anything Premier René Lévesque might have requested.

From: Russil Wvong | March 20

Gary Caldwell writes, “To be individually responsible toward others we must be identifiable. The most elementary part of our identity is our face. We look at one another face to face; we look one another in the eyes. It is how we take the measure of one another.” I would suggest that this is overstating the point. A great deal of everyday social interaction is now carried on by telephone and by social media. In both of these cases we can’t see the other person’s face. I have no idea what Gary Caldwell looks like.

There are nonreligious reasons for wearing face-concealing clothing. For example, I wear a balaclava when biking in cold weather. A more ubiquitous example would be sunglasses. Requiring people to remove sunglasses when entering a bank seems reasonable. Similarly, requiring people to show their face when it’s important to prove their identity seems reasonable. Requiring people to show their face whenever they’re in public, or (in the case of Bill 62) whenever they’re dealing with public services, doesn’t seem that reasonable to me.

From: Reg Whitaker | March 21

I have long been perplexed, not to say confused, by the passion devoted to this issue of face coverings. My first inclination was to shrug that it is much ado about nothing, or very little, but this clearly fails to account for the enduring level of commitment shown by so many to achieving a symbolic victory in law. If this is about cultural hegemony, emotion will trump reason, which perhaps explains the attraction of this issue to political parties in the 2015 election: gaining exclusive ownership of a hot-button issue can pay off in the heat of a campaign (or explode in your face as happened to the Harper Conservatives).

The struggle for cultural hegemony is a peculiarly asymmetrical process in a pluralist society like Canada. The claim by those who seek to ban face coverings is that the Muslim minority – or more precisely the minority within the Muslim minority – is seeking a symbolic victory that will challenge the very basis of the majority culture. But in fact, Muslims’ assertion of the right to wear a face covering is no more than a classic claim within the pluralist, multicultural frame – I want to be left alone to express my personal minority preference without making any demand on anyone else to change their preferences. The opposing claim is quite different: the minority must submit to the preferred pattern for public face presentation of the majority. Only one side seeks hegemony, while the other just wants a pluralist limitation on majoritarian uniformity.

I would not suggest that there are never grounds in a pluralist democracy for insisting on submission to common standards of conduct. Of course, so-called honour killings and female genital mutilation are utterly unacceptable. But they are already illegal under Canadian law. So the Tory “barbaric cultural practices” screed was just partisan demagoguery. The question in this case is, or should be: Is there a compelling public policy requirement for an extraordinary ban on the particular practice of face covering? What is the harm caused by a covered face in a public place (in the Quebec case, even entering a public bus) that would necessitate a legal ban, and a criminal offence for anyone resisting the ban?

Here is where I just don’t get it. I can’t see the harm – especially when it is already enacted in law and regulation that when facial recognition is required for a particular public purpose (like granting a driving licence, providing citizenship or issuing a passport) it is enforced.

Pushing a ban on face covering into more banal everyday public situations can only be explained by something other than the motive of enforcing good public policy. Fear of the Other? Islamophobia? Or just a desire to assert that “we” are still on top and don’t intend to let these upstarts in?

Culture wars are all about symbolism, but victory in cultural wars can have serious material consequences, which is perhaps why they are fought so desperately. The consequences of victory are, however, very unequal. We have seen the worst of majoritarianism: a young anti-Muslim zealot gunning down people in a bloodbath just for praying in a Quebec mosque. What is the worst of minoritarian victory? The odd woman boarding a bus in a niqab!

I still don’t get it.

From: Pierre Joncas | March 21

If, for others, the ban against covering one’s face is about cultural hegemony, for me it’s about verifying identity when it is called for, and about security.

Identity first. A government agent ought to know, without a doubt, that the person requesting a service is who she (he) claims to be. A person who comes to vote ought to be unmistakably identified by all at a polling station: his or her face must be visible. In Quebec in the Duplessis years, and perhaps elsewhere at other times, there was a widespread practice of voter substitution called “the telegraph.” To foreclose any recurrence this of this or similar fraudulent practices, I’d insist on allowing voting in person, exclusively, in all elections, including candidate selection and, even more, election of party leaders. Who knows who is dialing the telephone or emailing from the keyboard? The issue isn’t cultural hegemony – it’s the integrity of the electoral process.

Security next. Putting aside public institutions for the moment, what bank branch manager or teller would feel comfortable seeing a face-concealed, burqa-clad client approaching a wicket? Why should a bus driver feel any more at ease, given how many have been attacked, at least here in Montreal? Nowadays, more and more buses are camera-equipped for reasons of safety, to identify vandals. A great deal of use the tapes would be to identify and track down a burqa-clad bully, more likely to be male than female.

There is, of course, the issue of respect for the mores and habits of a host culture. That’s a separate issue and I’m not persuaded dealing with it through legislation would be effective. But if the Prime Minister of Canada and his family see fit to wear local attire in India, is it unreasonable to expect people of lesser social status who have settled in Canada to conform to our far from constraining Canadian dress customs out of courtesy? Or might Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Grégoire have been electioneering abroad to attract Canadian voters of Indian ancestry in 2019?

From: Henry Milner | March 22

Reg (like Russil) argues that women hiding their face in public is like their wearing ethnic costumes – harmless and, indeed, an expression of multiculturalism. He cannot see any possible public policy justification for repressing this “personal minority preference.” In my view, Gary sets out a convincing public policy justification tied to citizen responsibility for why this minority practice should be treated differently, and Pierre adds the security dimension. I want to stress another dimension, one that Garth mentions.

Note that the husbands, fathers and grown-up sons of these women could not imagine hiding their faces. Whether women who cover their faces are motivated by piety or are succumbing to social pressure, the fact that it is only women who do so sends a clear message. As such it constitutes a rejection of our values, not only those noted by Gary, but also that of gender equality: a woman’s face is not fit to be seen in public.

Bill 62 simply spells this out. It is unlikely that it will actually have to be enforced. It is not unusual and can be good public policy to spell out an expectation tied to citizenship that we know is almost never going to have to be enforced with sanctions (e.g. the obligation to vote in Australia or Belgium or elsewhere) simply to send a clear message.

From: Reg Whitaker | March 24

In the discussion about face coverings, I have the strong impression of entrenched views that will not change. But let me try to suggest at least some nuance in the argument.

Few if any Westerners “like” to encounter people who cover their face. I get that. I don’t like it either. There is obviously a deep cultural root to that aversion.

But I am not comfortable with just going with that aversion – and that cultural bias, if you like – when it is a question of people from different cultures presenting themselves as immigrants to what claims to be a multicultural, plural society. After all, we – I speak of liberal, progressive Canadians – are rather proud of how we overcame earlier biases and barriers that once designated minority cultures as “other” and threatening. Once, for example, we did not grant minority religious adherents the right to get off work on “their” religious observance holidays. Now we do, more or less.

Granted that face covering is a minority strain within the Islamic minority. But surely when we reach for legislative bans and criminal sanctions against this difference we also send a message to the larger Islamic community that is distinctly coercive and intolerant. Why do we need to make such a fuss that has such negative repercussions when the problems posed are really not that great in the larger scheme of things?

From: Pierre Joncas | March 25

Gary writes, “Critics asked how a law enforcing religious neutrality was compatible with keeping a Christian cross in the National Assembly.” I’m on the side of the critics. I have seen convincing documentation that it was installed there for religious reasons in the early years of the first Duplessis administration (1936 or 1937 if memory serves), probably to consolidate the vote of naive, susceptible Catholics. It is an insult to any conscientious citizen, believer as well as nonbeliever, who resists his conscience being manipulated to secure his vote (his vote: women were only granted the franchise in the 1940s under the enlightened Godbout administration). A few years ago, Quebec’s Catholic bishops indicated they didn’t object to the crucifix’s removal. Some who support its retention contend that it is an important element of Quebec’s cultural heritage. Given the circumstances of its installation, this contention is preposterous

“There are nonreligious reasons for wearing face-concealing clothing. For example, I wear a balaclava when biking in cold weather.” So writes Russil Wvong. Of course, the proposed legislation would not forbid him, or anyone else, to do so.

Reg writes, “We have seen the worst of majoritarianism: a young anti-Muslim zealot gunning down people in a bloodbath just for praying in a Quebec mosque. What is the worst of minoritarian victory? The odd woman boarding a bus in a niqab!” Majoritarianism? Leaders of all political parties and religious denominations (Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim) vigorously condemned the attack by Alexandre Bissonnette on a Quebec City mosque in which half a dozen Muslims were slain and others severely wounded. Majoritarianism? Seriously? I’m unaware of anyone in Quebec – even the fiercest among the laïcistes – approving this terrorist slaughter.

Reg also writes, “After all, we – I speak of liberal, progressive Canadians – are rather proud of how we overcame earlier biases and barriers that once designated minority cultures as ‘other’ and threatening.” While “cultures” may not be threatening, certain associated forms of behaviour can be: in a bus, a face-covering burqa or niqab is. One ought not to confuse liberalism and libertarianism. Is the determination by Quebec’s National Assembly, alone among provincial legislatures, to establish a Quebec long-gun registry illiberal? Is the abolition, under the Harper administration, of the federal registry liberal? Libertarian perhaps, liberal I think not.

The main point of Gary’s guest editorial, if I have understood it correctly, is to stress that freedom must be balanced by responsibility, a notion apparently widely ignored. He reminds readers of its paramount importance. I agree with him, as I do with former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie, who wrote in his dissent from the majority in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem ((2004) SCC 47), “There is a vast difference, it seems to me, between using freedom of religion as a shield against interference with religious freedoms by the State and as a sword.”

From: Reg Whitaker | March 27

In response to Pierre:

(1) Characterizing the Quebec mosque shootings as the worst of majoritarianism was hardly accusing Quebec leaders of being complicit in terrorist atrocities. Nor have I ever indulged in the “Quebecers are more racist than English Canadians” nonsense one sometimes hears. My point is that when the highest authorities in the land see fit to designate a particular minority as requiring regulation of its dress or appearance, it gives licence to the violent extremists who claim to act for the majority – just as the KKK and the lynchers in the South took heart from official segregation. On the other side, what would be the worst that would follow the legal recognition of the right of the tiny minority of Muslim women who wear a niqab to appear in public? Non-Muslims forced to convert to Islam? Shari‘a made supreme over criminal and civil codes? None of the above. The worst would be the 0.0001 per cent who wear niqabs boarding the odd bus.

(2) Pierre says freedom must be balanced with responsibility. Absolutely. Always. Just as rights always involve obligations. And yes, this is often forgotten in current debates. And minorities have rights but also responsibilities to the majority society – for example, to learn English and/or French even as they maintain their own language. To claim the right to be governed by shari‘a in Canada would be to deny a necessary responsibility to respect the law of the adopted country. But it seems to me at least that banning someone’s minority preference for religious garb is to deny to a particular minority the freedom of expression that is accorded the majority, not to speak of other minorities. Especially when the material – as opposed to alleged symbolic – harm to the public is negligible.

In short, I think not banning the niqab is precisely the right balancing of freedom and responsibility, while the Quebec law represents an imbalance and an overreaction.

From: Pierre Joncas | March 27

My problem with Bill 62 is that it is to be enacted on the grounds of religious neutrality. I think that the prohibition of face coverings under clearly and carefully defined circumstances ought be enacted where it can be justified on grounds of safety and identification. Religious beliefs are an intimate personal matter; they ought to remain so and not be a subject of law or regulation. Religious practices in public are a different matter altogether: they may (and should) be prohibited, but only after careful examination if, and only if, they imperil peace and public order.

Wearing a headscarf, a skullcap, a roman collar, all signs of religious belonging, neither conceals one’s identity nor constitutes a threat to security. Wearing a balaclava, not a sign of religious belonging, conceals one’s identity and, under some circumstances, can be a threat – in a bank it would give rise to instant suspicion, but not on a bicycle on a cold day. A mascot’s face-covering costume on a baseball diamond is innocent, but in a protest mob marching down a commercial street, it might be seen as a cover to hide the identity of someone committing an act of vandalism.

I’m far from an enthusiastic supporter of the current Quebec government. That said, I fully agree with the thrust of Gary’s guest editorial. Smacking of secular fundamentalism, the title of Bill 62 is, at best, tactless, and the way in which the government has handled it so far is extremely clumsy. All the same, there are sound grounds, other than religious neutrality, for the prohibition of face coverings under clearly and carefully defined circumstances.

Continue reading “Debate: Quebec’s ban on face coverings”

In the last issue of Inroads, Pierre Fortin advanced the argument that, in light of the objectives set out in 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution can be judged a success.1 These objectives, now achieved, were to:

  • raise the general level of schooling;
  • accelerate economic development;
  • see to it that increased income is more widely distributed;
  • raise the living standard to a level comparable with Ontario;
  • improve the economic position of francophones relative to that of anglophones.

Here I argue that although the Quiet Revolution was a success in his terms, it was a short-term success that could lead to long-term failure.

In a nutshell, in the immediate postwar period, Quebec enjoyed substantial advantages: public financial credit (almost no public debt); an economy growing as fast as Ontario’s (although admittedly from a smaller base); an extensive nonstate network of public health and educational institutions; a vibrant, dense civil society (stable families and large extended kin networks, local schools, municipalities, cooperatives, parishes and unions); and an annual population growth rate of 2 per cent. It exploited these advantages to meet short-term objectives: social-democratic reforms, an increased living standard and ethnic (francophone) advancement – precisely those laid out by Fortin.

However, the consequence of doing so was the dilapidation of existing human, social structural, cultural and economic capital – in other words, “the chickens are coming home to roost” a half century later. Physical infrastructure is failing as a result of lack of long-term investment, institutional development is curtailed, the quality of education is suffering, civil society has atrophied, demographic growth has stalled and the engines of economic growth – research and development and entrepreneurship – are lagging.

Furthermore, of Fortin’s Quiet Revolution objectives all but one – the more even distribution of income – are essentially materialistic: more economic development and more schooling to pave the way for a higher living standard. The New Testament teaches that “man does not live by bread alone,” and the corollary is that without a sense of purpose and a societal ethics long-term well-being may suffer.

Such nonmaterial aspects of societal experience can also be captured by indicators, albeit negative ones: suicide rates, alcohol consumption, mental illness, family instability and isolation or anomie. It remains to be seen what the long-term – two or three generations – consequences of the Quiet Revolution are in those terms. At this point, the consequences of the short-term dilapidation of collective capital can be seen more clearly.

Let us begin with economic development. From the last quarter of the 19th century to 1967, Quebec maintained a rate of economic growth equal to Ontario’s.2 After 1967, the year of Expo 67 in Montreal and only seven years into the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s deindustrialization relative to Ontario began.3 For a quarter century, as Fortin indirectly acknowledges, a growing government contribution to Quebec’s GDP compensated for this reality. Quebec’s superior performance, again relative to the past and to Ontario, was financed by taking on increasing public debt and by nationalization of existing industrial assets (such as the hydroelectric companies) and social assets (hospitals and schools).

However, the debt-financed expansion of the public sector could not go on forever, particularly in a context of slowing population growth. The Bouchard government’s drastic civil service cutbacks in the mid-nineties, resulting from pressure emanating from North American capital markets, clearly demonstrated the limits of such public-driven growth in a deindustrializing economy. Having attained the limit of public sector growth, Quebec is now increasingly dependent for balancing the books on resource exploitation such as hydroelectricity, mining and forestry and services such as tourism, liquor distribution, lotteries and casinos. Of course, Quebec is not alone, and similar situations exist to a lesser degree in Ontario (Fortin’s point of reference) and to a greater degree in the United Kingdom.

How has such a relative economic decline, an invalidation of Fortin’s second achievement, come to be? There are many reasons and this is not the place to adequately address the issue. Suffice is it to say that weak indigenous capital formation, flagging entrepreneurship, suffocation by overcentralization, regulation and eccentric corporatism, not to mention the climbing down of the cultural level of the economic elite, have all contributed to dampened economic vitality.

For instance, it is difficult to cite economic initiatives comparable to the 1920s creation of a world-class pulp and paper industry resulting from a Quebec government ban on the export of pulpwood. Moreover, almost all of the government-sponsored economic agencies cited by Fortin (SGF, Sidbec, SOQUEM, REXFOR, SOQUIP, SOQUIA, National Asbestos Corporation, Madelipêche, Nouveler and Québecair) have failed, been liquidated or been merged into other agencies.

In all fairness, Fortin recognizes some (but only a few) of these problems, and efforts are being made to address some of the factors contributing to Quebec’s relative economic decline. Nevertheless the reality remains, as does the fact that this reality is equally a part of the heritage of the Quiet Revolution. Most importantly, our ability to sustain the gains of the Quiet Revolution Fortin evokes – to be able to pay for them as he mentions – is very much compromised in the long term by these economic realities.

Essentially, short-term gains have been achieved at the expense of the dilapidation of existing social, cultural, financial and economic capital. The implacable consequence, short of action to rebuild or restore this capital, is that the gains are not sustainable in the long term. Whether the medium- or long-term consequences of the changes implemented at the expense of the dilapidation of existing collective capital will be negative remains to be seen.

What is striking, however, is the extent to which the social-class consciousness of the new technocratic class, whose material base is the expanded public and parapublic apparatuses, has resulted in a failure to appreciate the cost of the dilapidation not only of existing collective economic capital but also of the social capital on which long-term economic development rests. Fortin is not oblivious to this: he speaks of the “reach of government into every corner of Quebec life.” But he fails to appreciate the consequences.

Continue reading “Quebec’s Quiet Revolution came at a heavy cost”

The Quebec state has imposed a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, from primary one to secondary five (Grades 1 to 11) in all schools, public and private.1 Officially in the making since 2005, the program was introduced in all Quebec schools as of September 2008. It replaces all previous religious instruction and moral education, and it is compulsory.

There is no doubt that this program represents a major development in education in Quebec, and that the thinkers behind it are serious and determined. In the words of the lead philosopher in the team that inspired the program, developed it and is now implementing it, Georges Leroux, “The choice that we are making a historic and … political choice,” and it represents “a genuine rupture.” The major intellectuals involved in the gestation of this remaking of religious and moral education – Jean-Pierre Proulx, Fernand Ouellet and Pierre Lucier along with M. Leroux – are among the most competent of contemporary Quebec academics, and their stated motives are beyond reproach: their fundamental objectives are the “common good” and individual freedom and autonomy.

In this essay, I first distill the philosophical and political postulates of the program’s apologists. I then proceed to issues the universal and compulsory imposition of the program raises for Quebec society: a population existing in space and time – in history – that is the inheritor of an already existing public culture the reformers manifestly wish to break with. Finally, I comment briefly on the implementation process, which has generated considerable controversy: active government “information” initiatives, resistance in the form of a citizens’ movement, and two court cases to date.

The seven pillars

For the purposes of laying out the philosophical and political postulates or premises involved, I rely here on Georges Leroux’s book published in 2007 for the explicit purpose of explaining the program, Éthique, culture religieuse, dialogue: arguments pour un programme2 (Ethics, religious culture, dialogue: Arguments for a program), from which the above quote is taken. This book is the public and official apology for the program and is the culmination of a dominant academic school of thought that has been in germination for at least half a century, in Quebec and elsewhere in the West. Drawing on Georges Leroux is also appropriate inasmuch as he has graciously agreed to respond in Inroads.

There are at least seven pillars to the intellectual underpinnings of the program:

  • unrelenting committment to secularism in all public institutions;
  • a belief in the plausibility of normative pluralism, which is the tortuous access road to universal truths;
  • an abiding belief in the role of reason in the formulation of our individual world views and, more particularly, of our ethics;
  • belief in the feasibility, by recourse to critical reflection via dialogue, of each individual arriving at his or her individual autonomy;
  • the necessity and capacity of the state in fostering and ensuring these ends;
  • the need for a shared public culture if a society is to function and survive;
  • the cultural corrosiveness of globalization.

Obviously these “pillars” are in many ways complementary and interdependent; nonetheless, they stand out as distinct articles of faith in M. Leroux’s book.

“Secularism,” as practised in the Quebec intellectual milieu, is a dogma from which there can be no deviation or exception. For M. Leroux, secularism is an achievement of modernity, a precondition of democracy and a condition of individual freedom. According to the most radical secularists, no religious authority may be allowed to prevail, even be visible, in the public arena. Hence the display of the Christian crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly or in municipal council chambers is an aberration to be suppressed as soon as possible – even if, as M. Leroux readily admits, Quebec’s social and moral collective capital is the product of a Christian tradition.

As it happens, after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on the practice of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec recommended the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly in 2008, this body voted unanimously not to do so. The commission was headed by two academics supported by an “expert committee” composed of 12 academics and a high-level civil servant. Many municipalities have also refused to remove their crucifixes, despite the directives of the Quebec Civil Rights Commission.

Secularism is of course both a product and a condition of “normative pluralism.” The conviction that a society can function while recognizing the acceptability of varying normative systems is seen to be one of the characterizations of modernity. Differing and even contradictory value systems coexist in the private or “communautariste” niches of a pluralistic society, and their respective members interact together in the secular public sphere. A society that practises normative pluralism is not necessarily composed of individuals who practise normative pluralism. Indeed, given the spiritual dimension in our lives and our particular cultural heritage, many individuals will not be adepts of normative pluralism.

Normative pluralism is possible because in a modern secular state individuals will, as far as the public sphere is concerned, engage in “dialogue” during which, by the exercise of “critical reflection,” they will arrive at a consensus as to the nature and content of the necessary shared public culture in a spirit of civility which is the hallmark of a “vivre ensemble,” a way of living together. This is indeed the dynamic that is to prevail in the ERC program. As for the content of the program, it is ethics as entrenched in our charters and the presentation of the world’s major belief systems: religions, atheism and folk myths.

Yet, for the process of society-wide democratic deliberative discourse to take place, there are conditions that have to be created. Apart from the attenuation of religious authority in the form of existing communautarismes, there is a necessary respect of all for all – the vivre ensemble. In the situation in which Quebec finds itself, and given the corrosive influence of global culture, only the state is in a position of being able to establish and foster these conditions. By seeing to it that these conditions prevail in the educational system, which presumably is an instrument of the state, one can ensure the emergence of a “genuine common public culture” and a vivre ensemble sufficient to the task. The task is also one of ensuring the social cohesion of Quebec society. How transmission of a new cultural canon, whatever it may be (the old classical Western canon having been dissolved by globalization), can occur while operating on the basis of normative pluralism in a context of increasing diversity is not at all clear.3

I believe I have been fair – M. Leroux will tell us if I have not – in representing the essential beliefs of the proponents of the thinking that underlies the ERC program.

These seven pillars of the program are infused by an ideology that I would characterize as utopian voluntarism. The Leroux dispensation is voluntaristic because of its reliance on reason as exercised by individuals who have decided and are able to construct their individual ethic, and utopian because of its faith in a benevolent state operating on a level playing field in which all participants are well-meaning and equally committed to the common good and social “harmony,” a term that occurs throughout the book. There is no provision for the weakness of human nature, evil players, latent systemic perverse effects and determining conditions beyond the control of individual actors and the benevolent state acting in the common interest.

This ideology raises a number of issues for the citizens of contemporary Quebec who do not live in academia and who function according to the precepts of an already existing public culture. And I insist that Quebec society exists and, by all accounts, even in the considered opinion of Messrs. Bouchard and Taylor, functions quite well. This existing shared public culture is the outcome of collective wisdom, accumulated by trial and error and experience over at least five millennia. This existing shared public culture is, with the adaptation experienced as the result of five hundred years of experience in North America, essentially the “Western” or “Greco-Judeo-Christian” tradition, whose core is definitely neither as voluntaristic nor as utopian as the ERC program.

The role of parents

The first of these issues is that the role of parents in transmitting their culture, beliefs and values to their progeny is compromised, and no accommodation is made for this parental role. Young people are exposed to the normative pluralism of the ECR course beginning in Grade 1 at the age of six. At this age, children are still in the process of internalizing and consolidating the beliefs and convictions of their parents which are, in many cases, those of a religious community: what M. Leroux calls “communautarisme.”

In fact, through the ERC course, the school becomes a countervailing authority at a stage when children should still be under the influence of their parents. Not only does our existing public culture maintain this, but it holds that parents are responsible for the acts of their children until the age of 18. Furthermore, the methodology of the program intrudes on family by calling for reaching a consensus in a so-called neutral context in which the dialogue involves sharing with others the religious practice observed in their families.

In reality it is not a question of whether primary school pupils will be indoctrinated or not, but by whom. In our tradition, this role falls to parents and the communities of which they are members. The ERC program, inasmuch as it is imposed from the beginning of primary school, is a usurpation of the role of parents.

Second, although the program may be built on the principle of normative pluralism, not relativism, for the pupil it is a relativizing experience. If all religions as presented in the course are equally “true” then there is – at least until normative pluralism’s objective of eventual access to universal truths is attained – no truth at all. In the child’s mind and experience of the course, it is relativistic and may lead at best to disenchantment and at worst to cynical opportunism. This is a very real problem for young people who, before they are capable of critical reflection, have a need for certainty.

Schools and the state

The next issue is the role of the state in imposing values and beliefs. Most of us recognize that the state has a role in initiating students in our civic culture via a minimal curriculum, and in a shared cultural heritage via history and literature – what we call the societal cultural “canon.” Yet that is quite distinct from what is being proposed here. The stated objective of the ERC course is the initiation of young people – through exposure to various ethical and religious systems and dialogue – into a new and more adequate shared public culture to be propagated by the state.

However benevolent your conception of the state might be, this violates an essential tenet of our existing public culture, notably the separation of church and state. When the state imposes itself on the “church,” as opposed to the church imposing itself on the state, we have the same violation of this principle. (Interestingly enough, it is this very principle that made secularism possible.) In transmitting religious content, even if it is meant to be merely “cultural” and “neutral,” and by not allowing any exemptions to exposure to this content – which was the case in the first year of its implementation – the program encroaches on liberty of religion and conscience.

As it happens, the Mouvement Laïque du Québec, the major secularist movement in Quebec, has publicly criticized the ERC program for this reason, as well as considering the program inappropriate for primary-school-aged young people. Parents who have asked for exemptions have done so because they anticipate that it could cause serious harm to their children by calling into question the beliefs and convictions they are learning from their parents. Some parents claim violation of freedom of religion and conscience because the mere presentation to very young children of a variety of religious beliefs will relativize their parents’ own religious tradition or atheism.

Given the program’s avowed “political” purpose, to create and impose a new shared public culture and vivre ensemble, the state is indeed using its power of collective coercion to see to it that everyone experiences the course – there can be no dissidents. This is something new in Quebec: in its entire history of compulsory education, since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has always been provision for “dissenters.”

The role of the state in this program raises two related issues.The first is the capacity of the state to be ethical, let alone teach ethics. In our Western public culture, we neither conceive nor expect the state to be ethical. The individual legislator or state functionary is ethical or unethical, but not the state as such. The purpose of the state is to manage collective coercion in the interest of the common good as interpreted by our tradition and elected representatives.

The other related issue is that, in the Western tradition, schools do not belong to the state, and when they do it is an aberration that can become a serious problem if allowed to prevail. Schools in our public culture are part and parcel of civil society, created and administered by ratepayers’ associations (school boards), churches or even trade unions or guilds. They are in fact a “communautariste” reality, precisely the reality that the authors of the program have explicitly decided to exclude from education.

Nonetheless, Quebecers and others in the Western world have acquiesced since World War II in the idea that schools belong to the state and that teachers are the agents of the state, as indeed the Bouchard-Taylor Commission explicitly states.4 This is another deviation, a serious one, from our existing shared public culture. Schools are the extension of communities within civil society, and teachers, who are expected to act in loco parentis, are the moral spokespersons of these same communities. They are, above all, not agents of the state. The school in Ste-Edwidge where I live was, until recently, the school of the community of Ste-Edwidge and the teachers were fellow members of the community.

All of the above are issues because the program constitutes, as the authors themselves say, a rupture with the existing social reality. If we wish to continue to benifit from the liberty, creativity and prosperity that our existing public culture affords us, we should resist the voluntaristic utopianism of state-sponsored academics, while remaining conscious of the challenge and threats of our times such as the erosion of local cultures by globalization.

Deconfessionalization without debate

The process whereby the ERC course has been implemented is extremely revealing, and reflects a great deal about the motives and ethics of our new secular elite.

One of the major aspects of the whole process of secularization of Quebec society over the last half century has been the deconfessionalization of education, culminating in the implementation of the compulsory ERC course. What has been remarkable about the whole process is that the intellectuals who have been spearheading this process maintain that it is based on a societal consensus. The manufacturing of such a consensus, with the subsequent assumption that it exists in the population at large, is one of the great lies of recent years.

In fact, there is at present no such societal consensus, and there was never a genuine public debate on the “projet de société” consisting of an exclusively nondenominational school system. Pauline Marois, then Education Minister, promised such a debate during the 1997 joint Senate-Commons hearings on the abrogation of section 93 of the British North America Act – the objective the minister specified at the time was deconfessionalization of “structures” (school boards) only, not schools as such. The debate never took place.

During the preceding “États Généraux sur l’Éducation” of 1995–96, not a single group outside of the Montreal area asked for deconfessionalization during the public hearings of the first and open consultation phase. It was only in the second round of consultation, with a predetermined agenda presented to preselected audiences, that the subject emerged. As for the Proulx Task Force on the Place of Relig-ion in Schools in Quebec, Mme Marois’s follow-up on her promise of a societal debate, no truly “public” consultations were held. The churches of Quebec were either co-opted or simply ignored the government. None of the mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches initiated a debate within their communities, although the evangelical Protestant and Asian Christian communities did.

Parliamentary debate in the National Assembly on the bills dealing with deconfessionalization was virtually nonexistent, with no nominal vote being taken. When the Education Act was amended in 2005 to provide for the removal of all religious instruction in schools, this required a rewriting of section 41 of the 1975 Quebec Charter which explicitly guaranteed the right to religious instruction in public schools. There was a parliamentary commission to which one had to be invited. Needless to say, few opponents succeeded in getting invited.

With regard to the constitutional amendment which paved the way for compulsory and universal deconfessionalization, it was patently obvious to any constitutionalist interested in the subject that removal of section 93 of the BNA Act as regards Quebec would do away with any constitutional basis for denominational schools and would liquidate the autonomy of local school boards, which henceforth would no longer have the power to “administer” Catholic or Protestant schools. Yet not one of the half dozen Quebec constitutionalists spoke up at the time. As for the Catholic Church of Quebec, some of its spokespersons have now said that they were misled when they were told the objective was to deconfessionalize structures only but not schools.

The cultural and political elite may have acquiesced in deconfessionalization – although most of them continued to send their children to Quebec semiprivate denominational (prior to ERC) schools – but the people at large were never asked if they wanted it: it was never an election issue.

Denial of due process and abuse of power

Two trials involving the two parties who petitioned for exemption – the Lavallée family in Drummondville and Loyola High School, a private Catholic secondary school – resulted in the documentation of how the Ministry of Education had proceeded. During the trials, it became apparent that despite there being a provision in the Education Act (section 222) allowing for exemptions in cases where parents believed their children might experience “serious harm” by attending the course, no procedures – explanation of the section, forms for applying for exemptions, indications as to where a request should be addressed, appeal process – were available. And although more than 1,700 requests were made, none were granted. In the case of Loyola High School, which had requested exemption under an “exemption of equivalence” clause in the private schools law, the ministry did not even respond to the request; Loyola had to initiate the procedure by taking legal action.

The refusal of authorities to allow any exemptions as provided by law was, in effect, a denial of due process: access to the law and adequate opportunity to be heard and considered by the relevant authorities. One should have been able to assume that if legislators had left section 222 of the Education Act in the law book, it was because they intended to leave the door open for exemptions. But no, the government educational establishment took literally the prescriptions of the philosopher-conceptor of the program that there should be no exemptions.

Moreover, not only was there a denial of due process, but there was also a flagrant abuse of power. It took the form of the Ministry of Education instructing school boards not to allow exemptions: except for secondary five, the year in which the ministry issues graduation diplomas, whether or not an exemption will be granted falls under the jurisdiction of the school boards, not the ministry.

Another aspect of the implementation process has been that, despite the invocation in the ERC course itself of the Canadian Charter as an ethical standard, no deference was given to section 1 of the Charter, which states that none of the rights and liberties in the Charter can be restricted except by an intelligible rule of law, and within limits acceptable in a free and democratic society. In the present case, the restriction is compulsory attendance in a course that parents, in their sincere opinion, think may be a violation of their liberty of conscience and religion.

As for the first condition, the provision of an accessible and intelligible rule of law, what is flagrant is that there is an accessible and intelligible text that says exactly the opposite: that there may be exemptions. As for the condition that the restriction – in this case, compulsory attendance – be acceptable in a free and democratic society, the established test in Canadian jurisprudence is the Oakes test, arising out of the judgement in R. v. Oakes in 1986. This test lays out four criteria, all of which have to be met for the restriction to be acceptable in a free and democratic society:

  • there must be a real and urgent objective requiring the restriction of the right;
  • there must be a rational connection between the restriction of the right and the objective;
  • the restriction of the right in question must be as minimal as possible;
  • there must be proportionality between the restricion of the right and the objective.

The last criterion is judged to be superfluous by some authorities; hence, let us consider the first three. In the case of contemporary Quebec, I submit that there is neither the need nor the urgency for the restriction of the right of conscience and religion that arises from making compulsory a course designed to create a new shared public culture and to ensure civility and respect for others in the midst of diversity.

In actual fact, the diversity of Quebec society – the increase of which is the source of the need and urgency invoked by the course’s conceptors – is not great and is not greatly increasing. Eighty per cent of Quebecers are native French speakers and this proportion has been constant for the last quarter of a century. Furthermore, immigration has been and still is largely Christian in culture, with the result that 90 per cent of the population identified itself as Christian in the 2001 census. Admittedly, there has been an increase in the ethnic diversity of the one fifth of the population that is not native French-speaking.

Moreover, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, in its 2008 report, maintained that “the foundations of collective life in Québec are not in a critical situation,”5 and one reason is that Quebec society already has a working shared public culture. According to the same commission, “Québec … has acquired institutions, norms and guidelines that are components of what can be called … a ‘common public culture.’”6

As for the rational link between the objective of the course and the constraining measure – compulsory attendance – the disconnect between fostering respect in diversity and creating a climate of civility (“vivre ensemble”) on the one hand and the lack of respect for parents who believe their liberty of religion and conscience is restricted on the other is flagrant. In the name of fostering respect and tolerance for religious diversity, the dissidents receive a treatment akin to excommunication.

Which brings us to the third criterion, that the constraining measure taken be the least restrictive possible. Students who were withdrawn by parents and did not attend the course could have been allowed, for example, to read in the library instead of being expelled. In practice some more accommodating boards adopted this practice, while declining to inform the ministry. In Granby, where parents protested the severity of expulsion, the courts immediately quashed the board’s decision and required that the pupils in question be readmitted to their schools until the outcome of the trials.

In summary, given that there is no accessible and intelligible law justifying the compulsory nature of the ERC course – on the contrary, there are legal provisions for exemptions – and given that the government’s action fails to meet all the criteria of the Oakes test, we have here a straightforward violation of section 1 of the Canadian Charter, which makes the restriction unconstitutional.

Civil society is our real hope

In conclusion, we return to the avowed intentions of the conceptors of the program. Will the compulsory ERC course foster the emergence of a new shared public culture that will create society-wide civility and sufficient social cohesion to ensure that a supposedly increasingly diverse Quebec society does not succumb to the cultural corrosion brought on by globalization?

I think not. First, the program is based on an unduly voluntaristic premise: that each member of society will be capable of and interested in elaborating, through reason and dialogue, his or her ethical posture. Philosophers do this, and it is one of their contributions to society, but not all of us have the time, interest, capacity or disposition to do so.

Nevertheless, most of us need a degree of certainty about what we should and can do to be able to get on with our lives. And most of us rely on the moral and truth capital provided by a system of beliefs and convictions we have inherited, initially from our parents and subsequently via religion or models supplied by history and literature. Ideally, individuals internalize these beliefs. We may rebel against these “authorities” at some point, but at least we have something to be critical of, and the process of refinement or rejection is part of the edification of our autonomy. Karl Popper’s “burden of freedom” is not for everyone, and to impose it on everyone is both irresponsible and pregnant with unexpected consequences.

The other major weakness of the ERC program project arises from the utopian nature of its conceptors’ ideology. In their zeal to create the new Quebec citizen armed with a new “shared public culture,” they are proposing to effect a rupture with the existing shared public culture and the “communautarisme” it harbours.

Without civil society communities, most of us would be very isolated, atomized and hence vulnerable, especially in a globalized world that also undercuts communal solidarity. Thus, not only will the new shared public culture not be operative for several generations (the existing one took five thousand years to emerge in its present form), but the existing one will no longer be transmitted. After a generation of compulsory ERC acculturation, Quebecers will be ethically at sea, drifting from one fashion to another while becoming desperate for ethical and moral saviours. The accelerating growth of sects and evangelical Christian denominations in Quebec is a harbinger of this. And radical Islamism, which provides complete certainty, will find fertile ground for conversions in a ERC-nurtured population.

Furthermore, these utopians, by placing on the state a burden it is incapable of bearing, are contributing in yet another way to unfavourable prospects for Quebec society. Witness what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Quebec when the state and church became too close: religion was, to a great extent, emptied of its real meaning and became predominantly a matter of social convention and social control, unsupported by internalized belief and ethics. The reality that Quebecers are very vulnerable to the worst effects of “modernism” is a function of the superficiality of the state-sanctioned Catholicism of the premodern period. Chances are that the state-sponsored new shared public culture and “vivre ensemble” will not do much better.

Another major obstacle to the success of the program will be that, despite the benefits of familiarizing students (particularly at the end of their secondary education) with major world religions, preparing teachers to accomplish this is no mean task. Can we reasonably expect all primary school teachers to be sufficiently familiar with Budhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – not to mention Christianity – to meet the desired objectives? Or will they simply regurgitate ministry-approved material?

Which brings us, full circle, to the prospects of counteracting the culturally corrosive nature of globalization, the peril of which is one of the seven premises the ERC program is based on. It is, I suggest, the communautarisme new and old of a free and pluralistic society that is our real hope. In other words, it is the vitality of civil society, and not the taking in hand of our “spiritual development” by the state (as the Quebec Education Act prescribes), that will be decisive. Already, there are indications that civil society, in many Western countries, is producing its own antidote to corrosive globalization.

On the strictly political level, the ERC program and its proponents will not succeed owing to failure to respet the conventions and tenets of our existing shared public culture – notably, the prerogatives of parents in education, freedom of religion and conscience, the proper role of the state, the separation of church and state, and the separation of powers (legislative, executive and judicial). In this last respect, the role of judicial institutions in determining whether the compulsory nature of the course is justified is going to be crucial.

I expect that the courts will eventually decide that the methods used to implement the ERC course are in violation of our democratic liberties: notably the right to due process and protection from arbitrary government action (abuse of power). And if this is indeed what happens, the final irony will be that the course and its proponents wll have been judged to be “unethical,” and the champions of secularism will have been found to have failed to adequately take into account the very conditions that made secularism possible: separation of church and state and freedom of religion and conscience.

However, should the courts eventually decide otherwise, or should the government decide to overerride the courts by invoking the notwithstanding clause, we would experience a revolutionary political and social change in Quebec – in the words of Georges Leroux, a historic development. In such an eventuality, members of the population will either acquiesce, resort to political activism or, as is possible in an open society such as ours, leave.

Continue reading “Imposed From Above”

Coping with “deep cultural diversity”1 has become a major preoccupation in Western societies since the advent of globalization and demographic dependence on immigration. Contemporary Quebec, with its almost negative reproduction rate and its besieged cultural situation, is no exception. To understand the issues these changes have provoked, it is first necessary to sketch out the context in terms of five major relevant societal developments and social policy initiatives of the last three or four decades.

Perhaps the major relevant social policy change that was implemented from the sixties forward was the déconfessionnalisation of Quebec society. The Parent Report on education (1963–65) and the much later abrogation of the clause in the British North America Act that protected public denominational Catholic and Protestant schools (1998) were the two major turning points in Quebec’s secularization strategy. Since the turn of the century, this strategy has become more radical, notably through the exorcising of vestiges of religious manifestations in public places, such as Christmas trees and crucifixes, by the Quebec human rights commission. However, the emergence of a radical secularization strategy was largely an initiative of the cultural elite and new technocratic social class, in which the population was never actively involved. It was simply laid on from above, without consultation or even input.

The initial motivation of the elite was a modernizing vision accompanied by a zeal for democratization. Both of these were driven by anticlericalism (although not anti-Catholicism), fuelled by a substantial ressentiment (a pervading sentiment of envy with regard to privileges or power) against a church that had become so politically powerful that it was a coercive mechanism of social control. These first anticlerical reformers – many of them defrocked priests – were superseded in the late seventies and early eighties by a new social-class formation, technocrats of the public and parapublic sectors who had a material interest in déconfessionnalisation and a personal interest in libertarianism. François Ricard’s La génération lyrique (1992) is one of the best critiques of the rationalization of these people.

A second, and not unrelated, major social policy development was the gradual but inexorable incorporation of public education into the state sphere, to the point that the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, set up in 2007 to examine concerns about “unreasonable” accommodations to cultural and religious minorities, could as a matter of course refer to Quebec teachers as “agents of the state.” Today in the 21st century public education – and most of private education – has been entirely appropriated by the Quebec state. While this situation may not be all that different from what has been happening elsewhere in the industrialized world, it has very real consequences in terms of social policy generally.

One of these consequences, our third major development, has been the state-initiated implantation of a multicultural orthodoxy throughout the educational establishment, from kindergarten to graduate school. The multicultural vanguard was made up of university professors who, in a remarkably short period, imposed multicultural ideology as an orthodoxy, propagating it throughout the whole public apparatus.

This orthodoxy and its institutionalization in charters (Quebec in 1975 and Canada in 1982), combined with statist education, paved the way for a new generation of philosopher-kings, among whom the most eminent figures are Jean-Pierre Proulx and Georges Leroux. These people are convinced that the state knows best what is in the public interest and is the only social institution capable of implementing the measures that are necessary for assuring the public good.

Such figures, and their university fellow-travellers in the public and parapublic sphere under their influence, begot the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course, obligatory in all Quebec schools, public and private, from Grade 1 to the end of secondary school, with the exception of Secondary 3 (Grade 9). The explicit and predominant rationalization behind the need for the course was preparing Quebec youth for the new racial and cultural diversity of Quebec society. In the thinking of those who conceived and implemented the new course, religious differences are an important manifestation of “cultural” diversity.

The state-imposed course’s answer to the problems of “diversity” and its objective was the development of a new shared or common public culture (culture publique commune) and an enhancement of young people’s ability to be tolerant and understanding of cultural differences (vivre-ensemble). The means to achieving this are in-class group dialogue, a form of “deliberative democracy,” and a “neutral” presentation of numerous religions, thus relativizing them all.

It is revealing that in 2008 the entire political and cultural elite acquiesced in the decree that the ERC course had to be mandatory from the beginning to the end of compulsory schooling. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission also endorsed this position in its 2008 report. An indirect and unforeseen consequence of ERC is that it has contributed immensely to enshrining the charters in Quebec: as the course is rigorously relativist (no religion offers the truth) and as there is, by necessity in an “ethics” course, a need for a final transcending moral standard, it becomes, by default, the charters.

Another development affecting diversity, our fourth, has been the dissolution of a pre-existing historical consciousness. This is, of course, directly related to the ideological hegemony of multiculturalism. Educational content has become largely disembodied from Quebec history. This “cultural discontinuity” is a very recent development in Quebec. For instance, Quebecers under 45 who know what the battle of Châteauguay (1813) was and the name of the French-Canadian British commander (de Salaberry) are extremely rare, whereas most educated Quebecers over 50 acquired such knowledge at school.

Very recently, neonationalists such as Mathieu Bock-Côté and Éric Bédard have begun to agitate against what they call the “denationalization” of the teaching of history, but this has only happened in the last half decade.

And finally, the fifth development relevant to “diversity” is that the period as a whole – approximately 1970 to 2010 – has been one of economic stagnation in Quebec. Although the rise in the standard of living has kept up with Ontario, this has been at the expense of underinvestment in long-term development (capital equipment, public infrastructure and public services such as education and health). Although general awareness of this stagnation or relative decline – the “Lucides” and Alain Dubuc’s book L’éloge de la richesse (2006) – is relatively recent, the phenomenon itself has been documented since the seventies. Among the consequences are declining population growth, declining productivity and creativity (othen than artistic) and a declining capacity to do anything about it (high public debt and no real increase in educational attainment). Quebec is a society in which there is now generalized competition for a bigger slice of a pie which has stopped growing – fertile ground for ressentiment.

One final comment about the societal context of cultural diversity in Quebec: cultural diversity, contrary to what the multicultural pundits would have us believe, has not increased greatly in recent Quebec history. Granted, the nonfrancophone population is more ethnically diverse, but it still represents only one fifth of the population. Even in terms of religion, or perhaps more properly religious culture, 90 per cent of Quebecers are self-declared Christians according to the last census, and the majority of immigrants are still Christians. In terms of “diversity,” Montreal is still nothing like Toronto, where “whites” are close to becoming a “visible minority” and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a fast declining ethnic group.

In summary, these five societal contextual developments – imposed secularization, state appropriation of public education, propagation of a multicultural orthodoxy, loss of historical consciousness and societal stagnation – have set the stage for the emergence of a new public ressentiment that does not augur well for collective coping with the “deep cultural diversity” which may, indeed, come to pass, if only for reasons of forced population growth and labour-market requirements.

Recent developments: A commission and two court cases

This ressentiment came to the fore with the Supreme Court of Canada’s kirpan decision of 2004, which overturned Quebec court decisions that had upheld a school board’s decision to forbid the wearing of the ceremonial Sikh dagger (kirpan) in school. A series of “accommodations” to religious claims in Quebec and Ontario in the previous decade (the majority of which were arrived at out of court)2 were judged to be “unreasonable” by popular Quebec opinion and reported as such in the Quebec media. A notorious expression of the ressentiment thus engendered was the “code of conduct” published in 2007 by the municipal council of Hérouxville in the St. Maurice Valley, in which it was proclaimed that the wearing of the full veil (niqab or burqa) and stoning would not be tolerated.

Eventually the media storm around “unreasonable accommodations” was such that the Charest government, on the eve of an election in 2007, established a commission headed by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor to air the whole subject of “reasonable accommodations,” which had been inspired by and justified by the new multiculturalist orthodoxy and the charters.3 The Bouchard-Taylor Commission subsequently (2008) pronounced that in most cases individuals and institutions were able to come to reasonable accommodations and that the media had played an important part in whipping up a public storm.

The most recent developments are two court cases. The case of the Lavallée family of Drummondville involves the rights of parents to get their child exempted from the obligatory ERC course, while the issue in the Loyola College case is the right of a private institution to be exempted from teaching the course by replacing it with their own related course (“Great Religions”). In both cases the requests were made by virtue of relevant exemption clauses in educational legislation. In the Drummondville case, the judge decided in favour of the government, and in the Loyola case a Montreal judge decided against.

Both judgements have been appealed, the Drummondville case by the parents and the Loyola case by the Quebec government. In all likelihood – given the constitutional aspect – both will be heard together by the Supreme Court. In the Loyola case the ruling was that the minister, in the first instance, had not acted within the confines of the rule of law, having overstepped her powers, and in the second instance, had violated the religious freedom enshrined in the Quebec charter. The decision, quite a bombshell in Quebec although poorly reported by the media, focuses several of the issues facing a contemporary Quebec trying to maintain a distinct society while dealing with cultural diversity. I proceed to an articulation of what I believe those issues to be.

Four current diversity issues

Assuming the will to maintain a distinct society based on the sociopolitical reality which is geographical Quebec, the first issue is whether a common public culture into which all Quebecers would be acculturated is necessary. Of course, any “national” entity experiencing cultural diversity faces the same question. The necessity of such a common public culture is now generally recognized in Quebec and is coming to be so in most modern political entities. Both Britain and France are going through a period of reassessment in this regard.

Such a position, the necessity of a common public culture, stands contrary to multicultural orthodoxy, for which such a common public culture represents an obstacle to the adequate recognition of diverse cultures within the political entity, as well as being an expression of ethnocentrism. Indeed, it is seen as being contrary to the position of liberal thinkers of the Rawlsian tradition for whom all that is necessary in a liberal pluralistic society is a willingness to obey the law, itself conceived as disembodied from any particular cultural heritage.

In Quebec, however, events of the last half century have tended to demonstrate that a common public culture, rather than mere contractual legalism, is necessary if Quebec is to survive as a distinct society. Manifestations of what is required are the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) of 1977, the Cullen–Couture immigrant selection agreement of 1978 and the McDougall–Gagnon-Tremblay agreement of 1991 which allowed Quebec to impose a “moral contract” on immigrants accepted in Quebec.

Later, after the turn of the century, the Quebec Department of Education proposed as one of the two anticipated outcomes of its ERC course a common public culture; the other was a vivre-ensemble that would allow for the tolerance of cultural diversity. Subsequently, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission reaffirmed both the need for and the existence of a common public culture, as well as the appropriateness of imposing the obligatory ERC course to bolster these two objectives. And finally, in the last five years a new generation of Quebec nationalist thinkers has called for a stop to the disregard of national history brought on by a multicultural pedagogical perspective.

All of these developments have led to the explicit acceptance of the need for a clearer vision of what the common public culture is, and of the need to ensure its transmission. Acculturation to the common public culture would be incumbent both on all school children and on immigrants and would provide a basis on which to manage cultural diversity.

Our second issue is the adequacy of multicultural ideology and its constitutional “human rights” offspring, the charters, in coping with cultural diversity in Quebec. Multiculturalism and its benign idealism are coming to be seen as having contributed to the dissolution of the Quebec historical consciousness and to the charters becoming enshrined, by default, as the ultimate moral reference in public matters. Multiculturalism and the charters are insufficient to alleviate the resurgence of the ressentiment of Quebecers who see themselves as dispossessed. The charters’ legal sanctity is not enough to convince a population that “accommodations” derived from these documents are possible not only for newcomers but also for them.

The decisive and inescapable role of the Quebec charter in Judge Gérard Dugré’s Loyola decision is extremely revealing in this regard. Indeed, Judge Dugré’s second reason for invalidating the obligatory nature of Quebec’s ERC course was that such an imposition violates the religious freedom disposition in Quebec’s own charter. This being the case, assuming that the judgement is upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, there is no legal limit to religious claims for exemption from government-imposed cultural pretensions in Quebec: scientology and moderate Islam could make claims identical to those made by the very Catholic Loyola College.

The two court cases involving the role played by the Department of Education in imposing the ERC course lead us directly to the third “diversity” issue that has emerged in the last five years: the role that government can legitimately play in coping with diversity by laying on remedial educational programs.

Government in a postmodern society like Quebec is of such a rigorously secular nature that there seems to be no possible arrangement according to which it can deal directly with the topic of religion in schools. Quebec tried with the “religious culture” approach, but neither believers nor atheists have found the method acceptable. It is, and rightly in my opinion, seen as an infringement on fundamental liberties: freedom of religion and conscience and parental prerogative in education. The only acceptable position would now seem to be that the state as such, as opposed to the school, not impose any content of a religious character in the curriculum, but rather limit itself to “ethics” and “civics.”

The fourth “diversity” issue is the problem created by the displacement, by omission and delegitimization, of the society’s historical consciousness, a consequence of the influence of multicultural ideology and the relativizing mindset it cultivates. Put concretely, in the context we are dealing with, the current generation of high school graduates are rigorously ignorant of Quebec, Canadian and Western history dating back to before the Quiet Revolution. Put positively, the issue is whether a postmodern secular and pluralistic society can legitimately insist on the teaching of its own history.

If a common public culture is to be successfully articulated, kept alive and transmitted, I think the answer is yes. However, it would have to be done within the limits of the rule of law. Here is where Judge Dugré’s Loyola judgement is so crucial. The judgement maintains that in the imposition of its culturally interventionist role (here in the sphere of religion, not history), the Quebec government had been acting without due regard to the rule of law: the executive authority did not act in conformity with its mandate from the legislative authority. This aspect of the decision is even more remarkable in that the abuse of administrative power leading to the denial of due process, even access to the law, was much more evident – even flagrant – in the Drummondville case.

The crux of the question then becomes: how is a secular pluralistic society to privilege the teaching of its own history and culture, the ultimate source and justification of its common public culture, while remaining within the bounds of the rule of law – the kind of law generated by a legislative authority acting in conformity with the same common public culture?

Unless there is a way of legitimizing the teaching of national history, there is no stopping the erosion of indigenous historical consciousness. Even the high priests of multiculturalism are beginning to recognize that this is a problem: Georges Leroux with regard to the transmission of a literary and philosophical canon in his article “Enjeux de la transmission” and Joseph Heath with regard to shared values in his article “The Myth of Shared Values in Canada.”4

The solution to this dilemma is available in Quebec’s constitutional history, and it is recourse to the “notwithstanding clauses” that exist in both of the charters. Section 52 of the Quebec charter specifies that “no provision of any Act … may derogate from sections 1 to 38, except so far as provided by those sections, unless such Act expressly states that it applies despite the Charter” (emphasis added). Section 1 of the Canadian charter notes that its rights are freedoms are guaranteed “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Furthermore, section 33 allows Parliament or a provincial legislature to expressly declare that an act “shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.”

It is worth recalling here that Bill 101, implemented to protect the French language in Quebec, was constitutional at the time as it predated the Canadian charter, but would be impossible today without recourse to the “notwithstanding” clause. This clause in the federal charter was inserted on the insistence of Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta at the time, for just such reasons as invoked here: to allow a province to protect itself from what it sees as a threat to its “cultural” powers as provided for by the 1867 British North America Act and still intact in the 1982 Constitution Act. There is, it seems, no alternative to “notwithstanding” clauses – in either a federated or an independent Quebec – if a common public culture is to be maintained. Recourse to a “notwithstanding” mechanism in human rights charters needs to be legitimized as a necessary instrument for the survival of regional cultures in a globalizing world.

The Western canon: The only workable outcome

These four major “diversity” issues are now, I suggest, inescapable in Quebec:

  • The existing common public culture, which is constantly evolving, needs to be rehabilitated by articulation and transmission.
  • Multicultural ideology and charters have had perverse effects with regard to fostering tolerance of diversity, and have become the source of a new ressentiment. This is not surprising given the circumstances: the overall economic stagnation of contemporary Quebec.
  • In a secular pluralistic society, the state should not, in an attempt to deal with cultural diversity, be involved in putting forward any matter of religious content in the schools.
  • Again in a secular pluralistic society, the state needs to privilege the teaching of the society’s own history, on which its common public culture is based, in a context of respect for one of the pillars of that common public culture, the rule of law.

From these observations, we conclude that the best policy is to limit “reasonable accommodations” in the public sphere by systematic recourse to the notwithstanding clauses in the charters. Recently Quebec did indeed introduce a bill (Bill 94) that would require full facial exposure in the dispensing of government services, by the provider and the recipient, hence banning the niqab or burqa.5 Should this bill become law, and should there be a charter challenge, as there probably would be, Quebec should immediately invoke the “notwithstanding” clause.

Second, Quebec should promote a more rigorous “civic” and “ethics” curriculum, both in the context of a rehabilitation of “national” history and the transmission of the Western canon in literature and philosophy. Obviously, in terms of multicultural orthodoxy this is discrimination and ethnocentrism. Since in a multicultural world there can be no “national” values but only “universal” values, the transcending purposes of a particular national common public culture are always suspect, being judged arbitrary or “essentialist.” However, since any functioning and enduring society must have a common public culture, at least if such a culture is historically grounded then it is not totally arbitrary and has stood the test of time. It has the merit of having been experienced, of having matured in the light of its successes and failures.

All of that having been said, I am quite conscious of having left untouched one major issue which is pertinent to the cultural diversity question, although the discussion of it is beyond the scope of this text. It was aptly put by the now deceased Alan Jones in 1979 in his review of the work of the late-19th-century British educational reformer Lyulph Stanley:

In the endless debate on the place of church schools in a nation-wide system of education, a debate which led to that compromise which engulfed the school boards, Stanley left one question unasked: whence comes the moral authority of the state? To take schools away from the control of the Church in Victorian England did not change them much, for teachers were either Christian, or, if not, they justified themselves by outdoing Christians in moral rectitude. Once that situation vanished then it is difficult to see what the ultimate basis for the operation of the schools might be. To argue that teachers should be chosen not for their churchmanship but for their citizenship may seem unexceptionable, but does citizenship imply, say, obedience, and, if it does, where does the ultimate jurisdiction rest? To answer, “in each man’s conscience,” or, less likely, “with the authorities,” seems to give a choice in the end between the chaos of individualism and the tyranny of state control.6

“That situation” referred to by Jones has now vanished both in contemporary Britain and in Quebec with the accomplishment of dechristianization. Are we now faced with the “chaos of individualism” or the “tyranny of state control”? Some, perhaps many, would argue that the role of Christianity as the ultimate moral arbiter – the Bible being the “Great Code” in Northhop Frye’s terms – has been replaced by “Human Rights” as enshrined in the various charters and constitutions of the contemporary world. The Quebec case would seem to suggest that the charters alone are an insufficient moral authority in preempting ressentiment from becoming an obstacle to tolerance of “deep cultural diversity.” If so, Alan Jones’s question regarding religion and 19th-century public education in England still stands unasked in Quebec more than a century later. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that the religion issue, déconfessionnalisation, also engulfed school boards in Quebec, or rather led to their being effectively eviscerated.

However, even more to the point of the present discussion, if the charters have become, by default, the de facto ultimate moral authority, then how does one proceed to “notwithstand” the charters? My response to this dilemma is that the answer to Jones’s question, “whence comes the moral authority of the state?”, has to come from within the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition or the Western canon; there is no other workable outcome available to us in our Quebec context. And if this is so, the limits to and the assurance of a workable “cultural diversity” continue to be found in the deployment, propagation and transmission of the Western tradition, of which the charters are, after all, only circumstantial, circumscribed and ephemeral (in the Quebec case because constantly changing) derivations, not to be taken for the real thing. “You shall not raise up images in my name.”

Continue reading “Cultural Diversity and Quebec’s Common Public Culture”

The Canadian federation was the product of a particular history and geopolitical context. It will survive only if the original political considerations remain pertinent and if we continue to share the political culture that inspired our institutions. Should one or the other cease to apply, chances are Canadian federalism, as we have known it for almost a century and a half, will come apart. Hence the first question is: do the formative geopolitical and cultural conditions still apply?

The geopolitical context

In the beginning, the Canadian federation was a strategy to sustain two distinct nations in what was left of British North America. The nations in question were the British nation in America, descendants of those who had chosen to stay out of the Great Republic to the south, and French Canada, descendants of the French colonists, mostly from Normandy, who were themselves among the first European settlers on the continent. This strategic consideration was prominent in the minds of the “fathers.”

The political reality of overwhelming economic and military power to the south was there at the beginning, is there today and will be there for a long time to come. We are on the same continent as the Romans of our time. Our geopolitical fate is inescapable. Hence our destiny, if we are to remain Canadians, is to be non-American. It simply will not do, if one wants to understand our federation, to ignore this destiny, as does Will Kymlicka, or to sublimate it into a more general and universalistic discourse, as does Michael Ignatieff in his writing on nationalism.1 By contrast, Janet Ajzenstat, in her recent The Canadian Founding, points out how large the threat of American invasion loomed in the minds of the colonial legislators.2

Canada in its pre- and post-Confederation manifestations has been invaded five times by the Americans; and if circumstances require it – their need for our energy and water, for example – invasion may happen again, although not necessarily by military means. At the time of Confederation, both British and French Canadians had an antirepublican political-cultural heritage. The descendants of British Canadian loyalists had inherited memories of their families’ dispossession and expulsion by the American revolutionaries, while French-Canadian political attitudes were deeply affected by the horrors of the French Revolution of 1789. One of the surprises of Christopher Moore’s writing on Confederation is that many of the fathers had read not only John Locke and John Stuart Mill but also Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.3

At the time, Americans’ sense of “Manifest Destiny” and their having the world’s largest standing army were obviously perceived as threatening to the success of Confederation. Having won the Civil War in 1865, the Union was poised to consummate its Manifest Destiny in the north as it had done in the south (New Mexico, Texas) and the west (California). How many recall that the strategic motive for building the Canadian Pacific Railway was to establish effective sovereignty over western Canada? For that matter, how many know that the Rideau Canal network and the Citadel of Quebec were built as defence works after 1814 in response to the American threat? And finally, how many know that the choice of Ottawa as the capital was also made on defence considerations: the need to keep the capital as far as possible from the border? Both Montreal and Toronto had been overrun in previous invasions.

It would be naive to think that this geopolitical factor is not still pertinent today. The Americans may perhaps invoke the “Monroe Doctrine” whereby anything on the continent that impinges on American interests is their legitimate concern – be it in Cuba, Grenada, Quebec, Newfoundland or Baffin Island. The Americans’ adamant refusal to recognize Canadian sovereignty over the recently opened Northwest Passage is emblematic of this utter disregard for our interests when those interests conflict with their own.

This geopolitical context precipitated the formation of our federation, and has been present ever since. And herein lies my point: the federation has been successful in that it has allowed us to maintain distinct societies apart from the Great Republic. Should the federation fail, it is not at all certain that English Canada, French Canada and the “First Nations” would survive as they have done for nearly 150 years under the umbrella of Confederation. How, in day-to-day terms, we should manage our political, economic and cultural relationship with the Great Republic is a topic for another article. However we choose to manage it, our geopolitical position as a small country adjacent to the modern Rome remains an important factor determining the nature of our federation as long as the United States of America remains intact.

The withering of Canada’s political culture

We come now to the second question, the withering of the political culture prevailing at the time of Confederation. The then-prevailing political culture was crucial in creating the institutional machinery of our federation and in making it work for the next century. Incidentally, I embrace the distinction between political and social culture that Ajzenstat insists on in her analysis.

For those living within this political culture, the major political institution was parliamentary government as forged in the British tradition, responsible government in a constitutional monarchy. These institutions were in place in the pre-Confederation British colonies, and the British North America Act extrapolated them to create a new asymmetrical federation, with the American counterexperience in mind. In the British parliamentary tradition, the operative entity is the country (the United Kingdom or the Canadian or Australian federation); nations may be recognized but only at the provincial level (for example, Scotland in the U.K. or Quebec in Canada). Nations are a matter of social culture. The Canadian federation – or the U.K. for that matter – is not a nation. It is a multinational country, not a multicultural nation.

The multinational character is important to an understanding of the nature of our federalism. In this regard, I am totally in agreement with Kymlicka. The entire second half of Finding Our Way is devoted to the argument that Canada is and should be recognized as a multinational country (not a nation). He comes to the conclusion that Canada’s survival is dependent on acceptance of this vision of our federation by English Canada. Ajzenstat’s position on this question – with which I also wholly agree – is that Canada came into being as a political and not a social or cultural project.

Very succinctly, Kymlicka and Ajzenstat argue, as I do, that the federation was created by preexisting nations that, by treaty or quasi-treaty arrangements, undertook to enter into a parliamentary federation. For French and British Canada, the “treaty” is the British North America Act of 1867, at which time a British nation lived in Upper Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and some parts of Lower Canada, and a French-Canadian nation lived largely in Lower Canada. Later, subsequent to the founding, other territories were incorporated. British Columbia and Prince Edward Island were clearly British cultural colonies, the three prairie provinces a mixture of British and French settlers. Newfoundland, the very first colony of the British Empire, joined in 1949. Formerly a Canadian colony, the Inuit nation was allowed to reorganize a portion of the Northwest Territories and reenter Canada as a nation presiding over Nunavut. More than 500 First Nations, many of which have some sort of treaty relationship with the British Crown, have also been recognized as nations within the federation. The Canadian Crown inherited the responsibilities of the British Crown, and subsequently assumed other treaty responsibilities with respect to the First Nations.

The French-Canadian nation has become concentrated in the territory of Quebec. By dint of this, the Quebec Crown and legislature have increasingly become the de facto political representation of this nation. As for the British nation in Canada, it has, unfortunately, simply faded away (or has gone into hiding). Since the mid-1960s it has become meaningless to speak of the Canadian British nation. Kymlicka speaks of “English Canada” (not English-speaking Canada) as its replacement. Ajzenstat, who is primarily occupied with the question of political culture, does not address the question of contemporary Canadian social culture, limiting herself to “civic identity.”

And this is where, Kymlicka argues, a major problem arises. No longer a nation, English Canada has embarked on a nation-building enterprise to make of all Canada a new multicultural and bilingual Canadian nation. Having abandoned their British cultural heritage, English Canadians have been in a nation-building mode since the 1960s. The 1982 Constitution Act was the first formal embodiment of this new unitary multicultural pan-Canadian nation.

This nation-building program is an attempted refashioning of the history of the federation. Try as the new English-Canadian “national” elite may – rewriting history and pumping out publicly funded Canadian nationalist rhetoric – this exercise perverts the nature of the federation and imperils its future; as well, Kymlicka argues, it is a missed opportunity. Ajzenstat worries that the 1982 constitution leads to the demeaning of Parliament and parliamentary deliberation, and hence weakens the political culture on which the federation was built.

Such nation-building is a perversion because 1867 was a political pact assumed by the new Canadian Parliament. As a pact between two nations, it allowed for the recognition and later inclusion of other preexisting nations, notably Newfoundland and the First Nations. Canada was created as a country, not a nation. A symbolic manifestation of this is the inscription on Canadian war memorial monuments or honour rolls (except those that have been “renovated”): all Canadians who participated in the two great wars – the supposed crucibles of the “Canadian” nation – went off to fight for “King and Country,” not as citizen warriors of the Canadian nation. At least that is what the parents and friends who erected the monuments thought.

Furthermore, the logic of our British parliamentary institutions does not allow for change in the nature of the original pact unless the original parties to the pact consent, which has yet to take place. Quebec has not endorsed the 1982 constitution. Nor can a British parliament divest itself of its own powers, as happened in 1982 when the Charter of Rights was elevated to extraparliamentary status. Making it an entrenched constitutional element opened the door to broad judicial review and reduced parliamentary power. Vitiating parliamentary supremacy, as the 1982 constitution has done, has created a major challenge to Canada as we know it. For instance, the asymmetry of multinational federalism – whose only intrinsic justification is historical – becomes more difficult to justify in courts basing their decisions on Charter rights, as opposed to “the evolving unwritten constitution” as our parliamentary tradition would have it. For instance, the asymmetry of 1867 embodies conventions dating to the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Quebec Act allowed for the holding of public office by Catholics at a time when such was not possible in England itself. The protected status of Catholic public schools in Ontario, for example, is a direct legacy of 1774. For the moment, this status has withstood the assault of rights advocates and activist judges educated after the sixties. But for how long?

To summarize, the political culture in which the federation was spawned, and which ensured its success over the subsequent century, was that of mid-seventeenth- to mid-eighteenth-century Europe. Ajzenstat argues that in this culture, the protection of liberties, in the Lockean sense, was fundamental; and this, indeed, is what was meant by “British liberties” (a term still used in political discourse down to World War II). This political culture was nonrepublican and, as was the social culture of the British and French nations living in North America, conservative. This “conservative” nature of both the political and social culture is perhaps best accounted for by Louis Hartz’s notion of “fragment” cultures. British and French Canada were “fragment” cultures (Hartz identifies them as such) of European Greco-Judaic-Christian culture.

The new nation builders are neither mindful of, nor committed to, the future of Canada’s original political culture. Most are republican, liberal and ambivalent about the value to Canada of the Greco-Judaic-Christian tradition. These would-be nation builders pose a threat to the survival of our federation. Their attempts to engineer pan-Canadian or Quebec national identities have been too hasty and too brazen. State-sponsored identity creation, usually an amplification of academic identity engineering, is potentially quite devastating.

It is disrespectful to intimate to grown citizens – be they “French” or “British” Canadians – that the identity they grew up with is no longer of public interest, and should be relegated to the private sphere. Only ideological liberals would attempt such identity theft. It is the inevitable consequence of overzealous nation building.

One identity manipulation in recent Canadian history has been the state-sponsored displacement since the 1960s of the British identity in Canada. Those living outside Quebec and born before 1950 were raised in the culture of British Canada. They were schooled in an identity that represented the best of the British cultural tradition and saw themselves as proud inheritors of this tradition. George Grant was an emblematic case. These Canadians had to unlearn their identity and assume a new pan-Canadian identity. These pre-Charter British Canadians have been reduced from the status of a founding nation to that of an ethnic group in a multicultural Canada. To expurgate so-called “Anglo-conformity” – the term is a product of American sociology – has required much rewriting of history and indoctrination.

Contemporary Quebec nationalism is another example of the force-feeding of a new identity. The cultural and political elite of the Quiet Revolution decided to jettison the existing French-Canadian identity. Unfortunately the operation was botched because it was undertaken too hastily: the cultural underpinnings of the new identity did not have the time to be distilled and to mature into a cultural tradition. Even the Quiet Revolution generation that engineered the new identity is now unsure of what the new Quebec identity consists of, apart from the French language. Such a weak identity may no more have the wherewithal to resist Americanization than has the English-Canadian identity.

As already noted, Kymlicka sees the absence of an English-Canadian identity as one of the major obstacles to the success of a multinational Canada. Yet an identity exists only where there is a shared cultural heritage. What is, or could be, the shared cultural heritage of a multicultural English Canada? Now that we have eviscerated the British cultural heritage, there isn’t one, at least not in the immediate future and perhaps not for at least another quarter century. Too much time has been lost in the futile effort to manufacture a pan-Canadian “national” culture, time that could have been spent in fashioning a multinational Canada.

Is the Canadian federation still workable?

The would-be nation builders who have tried to bring into being as yet nonexistent nations have not served their country well. While they have been successful in deprecating the old “English-Canadian” and “French-Canadian” narratives about the founding of Canada, they have nothing of real substance as a substitute. Nationalism, they have implicitly believed, would bring with it a new shared social culture. This has not yet happened. They have, in the meantime, eroded by design, neglect and historical ignorance the once-prevailing Greco-Judaic-Christian tradition (in addition to the existing political culture) as nurtured and domesticated in the crucible of the New World. The Confederation-era political culture, and the accompanying social cultures, no longer have meaning for Canadians under 50.

One of the major justifications for the multicultural nation-building exercise has been that newcomers from other cultures, particularly non-European ones, do not identify with the old “narrative.” However, these people did choose to come to Canada and they chose a Canada which is the outcome of the political culture of the “founders” (to use Ajzenstat’s term) and the shared Western or European Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition. It is these cultural traditions that produced the Canada they chose to adopt: an open, free and prosperous society. We could have invited them to acquire an adequate understanding and respect for these cultural traditions, while pointing out to them that there is to be found the essence of the Canadian success. Had we done this, there would never have been a need for a republican-style constitution (1982) and a new manufactured civic nationalism which has proven ineffective and dysfunctional in terms of the particularities of Canada’s geopolitical fate.

There is nothing wrong with allowing people the responsibility and freedom of choosing: choosing the Canada of the “founders.” As it is, they cannot choose because we tell them that Canada will be what they make of it – which begs the question of whether a legitimate Canadian narrative currently exists. And if one – a substitute for the pre-nation-building era narrative – does not exist, then we are in dire straits. What do grandparents narrate to their grandchildren? Obviously, there is little to narrate because the civic nationality does not yet exist – only academic and cultural leaders think they know what it is because they are the ones making it up. The rest of us are culturally disenfranchised. This fundamental irresponsibility is essentially what the immigrant author Neil Bissoondath decried in his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada.4

Because the shared public values, institutions and narratives that made possible an asymmetrical federation have been displaced, the Canadian federation may well cease to be workable. Will a federation led by republican and “universalistic” political and media elites be able to do what is necessary to accommodate Newfoundland and Quebec nationalism? Will it be able to accommodate the grievances of Nova Scotians who were betrayed when Harper’s government abandoned the “Atlantic Accord”? Will it recognize Native grievances based on violation of treaties with the British Crown? Can it rehabilitate parliamentary institutions treated with disdain by professional politicians such as Stephen Harper and Jean Charest? Will it adequately respect provincial and territorial jurisdictions which are an integral part of the Canadian constitution? And lastly, will such leadership be a source of public inspiration that goes beyond material and short-term group interest? Not very likely.

The Canadian federation may falter and fragment not only because it has been unworkable internally, but – and this is the crucial point – because there will no longer be a political will for the maintenance of such a federation in face of the Great Republic to the south. When our political culture becomes essentially the same as that of the Americans, despite residual differences in social culture, there will no longer be any point in being non-American. Our political destiny of being non-American will no longer matter. At that point, why not become several formally independent nations – Quebec, Newfoundland and the Inuit nation, for example? On the other hand, why not become part of the Great Republic – probably the preferred option in Ontario and western Canada? Many in our political and media class would be enthralled by becoming U.S. senators or New York Times columnists.

However flippantly I may have expressed the conclusion in the preceding paragraph, our Canadian federation has in fact been betrayed by the “nation-building” academic, political and media elites in both English- and French-speaking Canada. Restoring the essential cultural underpinnings of the federation would require a cultural revolution among our elites similar in scope to that undertaken by our “nation-builders.” Is such a cultural revolution likely? That is another subject.

Continue reading “Canadian Federalism and the Would-Be Nation Builders”