Religious Representation in the Parti Quebecois: A Question of Identity

Quebec elected the Parti Quebcois (PQ) to lead its provincial government on Sept. 4, 2012 with 32 percent of the vote. The party, led by Pauline Marois, has expressed hopes to protect Quebec nationalism and proposed various policy changes regarding immigrants and religious expression to that end.One legislation introduced by Marois is the Charter of Secularism, which will ban religious symbols from public buildings. Controversially, however, the crucifix hanging in the Quebec National Assembly will remain on display as a representation of Quebec heritage.Quebec nationalism has historically represented an ethnically homogeneous, French-speaking, Catholic population. The PQ feels that this nationalism is threatened by the influx of Anglophones and immigrants to the province.

The Charter has provoked stark criticism towards the PQ, centered on accusations of discrimination and racism. Critics of the Charter seek to prove that these laws violate the Canadian Charter of Rights, which states that all people are free to practice their own religion.

Much of the discontent with the Charter was induced by racially charged comments made by PQ leaders. For example, in response to PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib’s reservations against keeping the display of the crucifix, Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay said in a radio interview in August 2012, “What’s outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who’s come here from Algeria, and we can’t even pronounce her name… They’re making our culture and religion disappear everywhere.”

The crucifix that hangs in the Quebec National Assembly. courtesy of

Statements like Tremblay’s revive concerns of the goals of the PQ. As an example, Montreal Media Co-Op, a local non-profit media organization, stated in response to the Reasonable Accommodation hearings in Quebec in 2007, “Those circumstances helped make visible the racist and sexist nature of government policies towards indigenous peoples and immigrants since the colonization of Canada”. This is an example of some of the skepticism citizens hold with the PQ legislations.

To explore these allegations, the province’s then-premier Jean Charest directed the government of Quebec in 2007 to issue a report to further investigate the issue of Reasonable Accommodation of Cultural Difference in Quebec, an issue that has been raised several times in Quebec history. This accommodation, outlined in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, is made to employees and customers so that they can work in a hospitable environment without discrimination. The report, known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, presented evidence of xenophobia and racism in the Quebec province accompanying the fear that Quebec is losing its cultural identity. Furthermore, the authors concluded that the Charter of Secularism proposed by the PQ demonstrates prejudices against religious minorities, a majority of whom are immigrants.

Similar debates on the threat that religious diversity and immigration pose to national identity have sprouted in Germany, Holland and elsewhere in the world.  A counter viewpoint to the PQ’s, however, asks whether immigration is truly a threat to national identity, or simply a sign that the world is becoming more interconnected, making sovereign states more diverse.

Charles Taylor, co-author of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and world-renowned philosopher well-versed in the area of Quebec secularism, said in a CBC radio interview on Sept. 12, 2012 that, “These negativities… are fears, fear that the immigrants are changing us [the province], the fear the English is growing. This is not a danger. These are invented dangers and with the case of immigrants it generates uneasiness and people rationalize this as an actual danger.”

Taylor argues that the original Quebec nationalism spearheaded by French-speaking Catholics is outdated, and that the province should now identify as a multicultural, progressive society welcoming diversity and social mobility. “[Quebecois] is no longer a French-Canadian identity… it has become a Quebec identity. But such identity must be an inclusive type of identity,” he confirmed in a CBC interview in 2008.

He continued, “The Quebecers need to demonstrate the openness and generosity of the spirit that majorities should have towards minorities.”

A fundamental question is whether secularist states must necessarily present anti-religious ideology and suppress immigrant representation. Dr. Valerie Stoker, Associate Professor at Wright University stated in an article in the Oxford Journal of Hindu States, that often limits are imposed on minority religious expression and there is an oppositional relationship between religious minorities and the secular state.

In an ever-changing world, identity is an important value, and the Quebec province must ask itself if prohibiting religious expression is essential to protect its identity. In a truly accepting society, multicultural education is an important prevention against an ideology around fear of “others.” What is it that a country needs to do in order to keep its identity? It is a matter of the people that make up the culture or the liberties they represent?

As Taylor believes, legislation like the Charter of Secularism will “ultimately make [the province] out of the alignment with the Western liberal world.”

Removing religion from public culture can potentially create close-mindedness in future generations, in which anything deemed different or “other” will be instantly perceived as inferior. The question remains whether implementing extreme legislations is essential to protect identity. In a globalizing world, what does identity mean to a society today and how far do nations need to go in order to protect it?

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