May 23, 2008

Quebec, la belle province, was once a land as Christ-haunted as Flannery O’Connor’s American South, with classical parish churches at the heart of towns and cities, and crucifixes in classrooms, courtrooms, and most prominently looking down from on high above the Speaker’s Chair in the Parliament of Quebec. (Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess” superbly depicts Quebec’s Catholic society in the 1950s). While the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s created an altogether more secularized modern society, robbing the Quebecois of their cultural and religious heritage, the crucifix in parliament remained, most recently challenged by the Bouchard-Taylor report, released this week.

Quebec has undergone an identity crisis concurrent with its latest wave of immigration, most of these immigrants hailing from Africa and the Middle East. Whereas there is no dominant ethnic group or ethnic-based identity in English-speaking Canada (descendants of Britons comprising 34% of the population), in Quebec 77% of the population are ethnic French-Canadians. Of those Quebecois whose primary language is French, 71.7% claim that their society is “overly tolerant” with regard to immigration (a figure that drops to 35.2% for those whose primary language is not French).

The specially-commissioned Bouchard-Taylor report makes a number of recommendations of how to better integrate the newer immigrants, and repeatedly calls for the removal of the crucifix from parliament as well as an end to all public prayers at government functions.

Happily, the National Assembly of Quebec has unanimously passed a resolution stating that the crucifix will stay where it is. The motion was proposed by the Premier of Quebec, Mr. Jean Charest, and Mr. Charest’s Liberals were joined by the official opposition, the Action democratique de Quebec, and the separatist Parti Quebecois.

“We cannot erase our history,” Premier Charest said. “The crucifix is about 350 years of history in Quebec that none of us are ever going to erase, and of a very strong presence, in particular of the Catholic Church. And that’s our reality. And those who come to Quebec are joining a society where that history is now something that is part of our story.”

The Bouchard-Taylor report, however, draws some altogether different conclusions. “Catholicism has left an indelible mark on Québec’s history,” the report concedes. “Traces of it are all around us. Under the principle of the neutrality of the State, religious displays linked to the functioning of public institutions should be abandoned. Thus, we do not believe that the crucifix in the National Assembly and the prayers that precede municipal council meetings have their place in a secular State. In both instances, public institutions are associated with a single religious affiliation rather than addressing themselves to all citizens.”

“That being the case,” the report continues, mixing common sense with liberal cant, “it would be absurd to want to extend this rule of neutrality to all historic signs that no longer fulfil an obvious religious function, e.g. the cross on Mont-Royal or the crosses on old buildings converted to secular uses. The same is true of Québec toponymy, which is largely inspired by the calendar of the saints. Quebecers’ common sense will surely prevail in this respect.”

(Rather absurdly, the Societé Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, a cultural nationalist group named after the province’s patron, St. John the Baptist, has stated in response to the report that it wholly supports the concept of a secular Quebec and that prayer has no place in civic forums.)

It would be more heartening if the National Assembly’s refusal to remove the crucifix were evidence of a renewed commitment to keep Christianity as the governing principle of Quebec society, but sadly Our Lord has been reduced to a cultural relic of great importance. However, the mere fact that it is being left alone, despite many challenges, gives us hope. So does the surprising success of Quebec’s ADQ party, which came from almost nowhere to within a few breaths of actually forming the government at the last provincial election.

Should the ADQistes capture the premiership at the next election they will have succeeded in bringing moderate conservative government to one of the New World’s most secularized bailiwicks. Conservatives, having once written off the province entirely, should definitely keep Quebec on our list of “ones to watch”.


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