Entries in quebec (2)


Two concepts of secularism and Canada's two solitudes: A limited defence of Pauline Marois

There is a lot that divides anglo and franco in Canada: Leafs vs Habs, Corner Gas vs Tout le Monde en Parle; Air Farce vs Juste Pour Rire. But nothing says “two solitudes” more than the distinct approaches to secularism you’ll find in Quebec and in the ROC.

The depth of the mutual incomprehension was revealed recently during the Quebec election campaign, when Parti Québécois  leader Pauline Marois released a platform item called the Charter of Secularism, which would forbid public employees from wearing any religious symbols while at work. So, no turbans or hijabs or kirpans or that sort of thing. On the other hand, a crucifix necklace would be ok, as is the crucifix that hangs in the legislature in Quebec City.

According to Marois, the new charter (and its notable exceptions) would serve a dual purpose. First, it would assert the principle of the neutrality of the state. And second, it would affirm the particular place of Catholicism in Quebec’s history.

"Wanting to take a step toward ensuring the neutrality of the state doesn't mean we deny who we are," she said while campaigning. "It simply means we are at a different moment in our history.

For this she was given the standard moralizing treatment the Anglophone media traditionally reserves for Quebecers at home and Republicans abroad: From the Globe and Mail: “On tolerance of minorities, Pauline Marois is showing the opposite of leadership.” From the Toronto Star:  “PQ’s ‘secularism’ masks European-style intolerance”. (According to the Citizen’s Robert Sibley, Marois’ problem is not that she is intolerant, but that she isn’t intolerant enough. But that’s another argument).  The upshot is that when it comes to asserting both state neutrality and Quebec’s Catholic origins, Marois was seen in the ROC as a hypocrite at best, but more likely a rank xenophobe.

Here’s a more charitable interpretation of the Charter of Secularism: It expresses a philosophically legitimate approach to the question of the proper relationship between church and state, albeit an approach that may no longer be appropriate to the challenges that Quebec faces in dealing with minorities.

There are two broad theoretical versions of the secular state (taken from Charles Taylor’s essay, “How to Define Secularism”). Each affirms the idea of a neutral state, but the form that neutrality takes is shaped by the problem it is designed to solve.

On the first view, the goal of secularism is to control religion, to “define the place of religion in public life, and to keep it firmly in this location.” As Taylor points out, this doesn’t need to involve any overt repression, “provided various religious actors understand and respect these limits."

On the second view of secularism, the point is not to control religion narrowly understood, but to manage the entire spectrum of comprehensive worldviews. These include organized religious outlooks, but also encompass vague types of spiritualism, scientism, atheism, and competing philosophical doctrines such as utilitarianism and deontology. All of these have differing (and possibly incompatible) notions of the good, and will hence come into conflict in the public sphere. The point of the neutral state is to find a way of accommodating and mediating between all of these worldviews.

 Let’s call the first secularism “French,” and the second, “English”. They correspond, more or less, to the forms the emerged out of post-Enlightenment France and England, and they are responses to the distinct challenges religion posed to each society. For France, secularism was a response to monolithic and heavy-handed Catholic authoritarianism. In England, secularism was part of the liberal tradition that sought to mediate between multiple competing worldviews.  

You can see the downstream effects of both these challenges in the way France and the UK approach secularism today. France continues to treat it as a way of controlling religion by purging it from the public sphere – hence the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools (sound familiar) and Sarkozy’s 2011 ban of the burqa and other face coverings.

For its part, the UK has fully embraced the interpretation of secularism – usually called “multiculturalism” – as a device for allowing the maximum amount of freedom that is compatible with the same degree of freedom for others.

It doesn’t take a great imagination to see how these two conceptions of secularism have been transposed into the Canadian context. The ROC is a fairly typical multicultural state, again with a few tweaks and variations from the sort found in the USA, the UK, and Australia. For its part, Quebec has pretty much copied the French approach, with a slight difference: Quebec still sees value, and little harm, in permitting Catholic symbols in official and public spaces.

But (goes the objection), isn’t this “slight difference” a major problem? Isn’t Marois’ proposal to allow the crucifix to remain in the legislature a sign of her profound bad faith?

I’m not so sure. Montreal is one of the most secular and irreligious cities on Earth, but its residents go about their business in the shadow of a giant cross that glowers down at them like a stern bishop. But no one takes it seriously, any more than anyone takes seriously the crucifix in the national assembly. The reason rests in the big difference between the French Revolution and Quebec’s: The complete absence of violence here in the New World. Quebec’s was a Quiet Revolution; there were no beheadings, and there was no need to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest. All Quebecers had to do to shuck off the church was take control of their education and health care systems.

This is an important point: Quebecers don’t see any need to ban Catholic symbols from public space, not because they are hypocrites, but because those symbols are no longer a threat. That battle has been fought and won. But the symbols of other, foreign religions are seen as a threat to the secular order, hence the perceived need to control their use.

If this sounds like special pleading, consider a comparable case: the ongoing public funding of a separate school system for Catholics in Ontario. By any reasonable standard, the separate school system is an affront to liberalism, multiculturalism, anglo-secularism, whatever you want to call it. There is simply no rational justification for it, apart from the fact that it’s in the constitution. But when Conservative leader John Tory ran an election campaign a few years ago promising to even things up by allowing funding for all religious schools, he was mocked into political oblivion. Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s ongoing defence of the status quo is far more hypocritical than Pauline Marois’ charter when it comes to consistent secularism.

This is not to say that when it comes to French versus English secularism there is nothing to choose, that each is a matter of local taste mixed with historical happenstance. Each form of secularism was an institutional response to a specific threat, and each served their respective societies quite well. But looking to the future, we can’t say that each is equally suited to the challenges that they face. In particular, the French/Quebecois model is overly focused on the threat of religion narrowly understood.

Neither France nor Quebec are in any danger of being taken over by a single religion – they are not about to revert to theocracies. The real problem is the same one confronting every other major industrialized democracy, viz., the challenge of managing deep  and irreconcilable diversity. Spending time and energy and capital trying to keep each new religious group in its place is political and cultural wack-a-mole. Instead, they should concentrate on putting in place programs and policies and institutions that will allow the fantastic diversity that their societies have to offer to co-exist.

If the rest of Canada has better policies, and better practices, it is largely thanks to historical factors that are none of our doing. If we insist on taking credit for them while making invidious comparisons with Quebec, the least we could do is make sure that we’ve purged our institutions of all inherited biases.




Justin Trudeau and the myth of shared values

I feel a bit sorry for Justin Trudeau. He has spent the last two days being roasted for doing nothing more than make explicit the consequences of a set of beliefs that are held by many, perhaps even most, Canadians, including most of the people who are crapping on him. 


First things first, what did he say? Last Sunday, he said (in French) to a Radio-Canada host:
"I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country."


Lots of people -- including me -- went a bit nuts. Trudeau, after all, is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the arch anti-nationalist loved by (some) anglophone Canadians for putting separatists in their place. What Justin Trudeau appeared to be doing was outing himself as yet another conditional Quebecer, yet another adherent of "profitable federalism." Typical was Colby Cosh of Maclean's, who wrote that Justin Trudeau "is like most other Quebecers in regarding separation as a negotiating position, adopted or discarded according to circumstances." 


Oh please. Justin Trudeau has never given any indication that he's a Bourrassa-style federalist (or even Charest-style federalist, for that matter), and I doubt he has any dream of using federalism as nothing more than a device for extracting better terms for Quebec. I honestly don't think Justin Trudeau has any more sympathy for conditional federalism than I do, or Stephane Dion does, or Andrew Coyne does. If Justin Trudeau did have any such leanings, he'd be a hell of a lot more popular in his home province. 


What Trudeau was doing was expressing his understanding of the theory of shared values. According to this theory, what guarantees the social and political cohesion of a country like Canada -- what ensures that the country hangs together -- is that the population has shared values. What Canadians have in common, what makes Canadians Canadians, is that they share a set of strong values that underwrite the national identity. 


Shared values talk is everywhere in this country, and has been for decades. Jean Chretien never shut up about Canadian values. Ken Dryden never shuts up about Canadian values. Stephen Harper and his ministers never shut up about Canadian values. Roy Romanow's Future of Health Care report was entitled "Building on Values". Michael Adams' best-selling book Fire and Ice was one long argument that what makes Canadians distinct from Americans is that we have different values than they do. I doubt any of these people have the same values in mind when they invoke Canadian values. 


Shared values talk also permeates the discourse of not just Quebec separatism, but most forms of regional alienation. Stephen Harper's firewall letter is filled with shared-values language, in the negative: "They" don't share "our" values, therefore "we" need to take steps to protect ourselves from "them". 


So what was Justin Trudeau getting at? Basically he was saying: Look, there is a set of shared values, bestowed upon the country by the Liberal Party of Canada between 1965 and 2005, that collectively define what it means to be Canadian. And (thinks Trudeau), those values are not consistent or compatible with the social conservatism of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. (Set aside the issue of whether this is an accurate picture of Tory policies; the issue is what Trudeau thinks). And so, thinks Justin, if the values expressed and represented by Harper's Conservatives are the new, genuine "shared values" of Canadians, then he draws the logical conclusion: The Canada that Justin Trudeau loves and feels allegiance to no longer exists. Justin Trudeau has no country. 


And so he says look, if that Canada is really and truly gone, then maybe he might find a reasonable replacement for it in the political collectivity that best expresses his preferred Canadian shared values, namely, those of Quebecers (again, accuracy is not the issue here).
To sum up then, what Justin Trudeau was getting at was something like: If Harper's Canada is the new genuine Canada, then the only place you might find a political community based on the old shared values of Trudeauvian Liberalism is in Quebec. That is, Quebec could become a country, in the name of defending and protecting the shared values of the Canada of Pierre Trudeau. In which case, Justin Trudeau's remarks make him less like René Lévesque, and more like Alec Baldwin.


But here's the thing: If you accept the theory of shared values, then there is nothing remotely crazy about this line of thinking. Just the opposite: Justin Trudeau's argument follows directly from the theory of shared values. 


The good news is the theory of shared values is a myth. Canadians don’t have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that’s not a problem, because  the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.


But the bad news is that a lot of people don't realize the shared values theory is bogus.


Canada is a liberal democracy, and like similar societies, it is designed to allow us to get along despite widespread and non-negotiable disagreements over values — that is, over how people should live their lives. Our political institutions, underwritten by constitutional declarations such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t assume that citizens have shared values. Instead, they provide the legal and institutional scaffolding for allowing us to get along despite the absence of shared values. 


This is where some shared-values theorists try to get clever. "Oh look," they say. "You have just argued that we have no shared values, by pointing to the constitution and the Charter. You've clearly contradicted yourself." But the Charter doesn't express values, in the sense of a thick, comprehensive account of the good life. The Charter provides a framework of principles that are neutral with respect to controversial questions of value, that allows us to live in the same political space while pursuing highly divergent, contradictory, and even antagonistic visions of the good. 


The liberal requirement of neutrality with respect to the good is why we have freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association. It is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.


You can call these principles "values" if you like (though it has the effect of eliminating one of the most useful and relevant distinctions in political philosophy), but at the price of impaling yourself on one of two horns of a dilemma.


On the one hand, if you adopt "liberal principles" as your shared values, these values are so thin, and so general, that they don't distinguish Canadians from Americans or Europeans in any significant way. Going in the other direction, if you call liberal principles "values", it isn't clear why Quebec can't simply found its own state on these "values." 


But on the other hand, the more you thicken up these values, to make them express a comprehensive vision of the good, the fewer Canadians will actually share them. Tens of millions of Canadians share the "values" of the Charter. About thirteen million are Catholics. A few thousand share the values of Mennonites. The idea that there is a set of values thin enough to capture the hearts of all Canadians and bind the nation together, but thick enough to exclude all others, is forlorn.


So yes, Justin Trudeau was wrong, and what he said was dangerously misguided. But I think most of his critics have an equally misguided theory. if you're a shared values theorist, then you have a choice: Accept his conclusions, or abandon the theory. You can't believe that Canada is held together by shared values and keep crapping on Justin.