When eighteenth-century ancestors of mine were, together with their entire village, forcibly resettled to Ukraine, they took with them a distinctive island culture. An important vehicle of this culture was their language—a medieval Swedish dialect preserved on the remote Estonian island that had been their home since the early Middle Ages.
In Ukraine, the language, and the culture it supported, would face severe stress. Large German-speaking settlements soon competed for land. Rising Slavic nationalism made the situation of both Germans and Swedes precarious. Some left to farm the Canadian prairie and were completely assimilated within a generation. Others bet their cultural survival on emigration to Sweden, not realizing that their community would be disbanded, and unaware that the Sweden of their imaginings had passed out of time several hundred years earlier. Unexpectedly alienated, hundreds chose to return home to the (now) Soviet Ukraine, to chance the persecutions, imprisonments, and executions that were to follow.
Today, there are fewer than a dozen speakers of the old medieval Swedish. They remain in the old Ukrainian village, studied by linguists and anthropologists. The language, and the culture it carried, are dead.
The death of one’s culture is the loss of the means to bequeath a patrimony of hard-won truths about what it means to be human. It imperils the ability of parents to understand their children, and to be understood by them. No one who loves his or her community can be indifferent to its perpetuation. The government of Québec is no exception.
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Québec politics must be understood by reference to the exigency of community survival. It can be difficult to understand Québec patriotism because its situation is unique in North America. English-speaking Canada need not and does not fear assimilation. It has no project of preserving a common culture. Indeed, the very concept of a common culture is largely gone, replaced by a vague multiculturalism that is officially open for definition and redefinition by all comers, continually subject to realignment. The dominant culture is not one for which anyone is encouraged to feel much attachment or responsibility.
Québec, however, is different. The French and Catholic community within Québec is simultaneously a linguistic and religious majority within Québec, and a minority in the rest of the country. And in a way that is unique in Canada, Québec has always understood itself to be a society with a distinct common good. Accordingly, Québécois lawmakers have taken vigorous steps to preserve their culture, primarily by guarding the French language. Québec is famous for its language laws restricting the use of non-French languages in commerce, and laws restricting access to public education in English.
The glory of Québec is this orientation toward preserving its culture, of making a positive statement of what it means to be Québécois. Its tragedy is how thin its understanding of the common good has become. Since the 1960s, it has been increasingly dominated by laïcité and the mere preservation of language. Its rich heritage, tied up with Catholicism, is now dismissed as the Great Darkness. Quebec’s churches stand empty. Its marriage rate is the lowest of any Canadian province. The percentage of Québec-born francophones has been on the decline, necessitating immigration.
Yet Québec’s identity remains tied to the Church in a pathological way. Though it has become practically irrelevant to the majority, Québec nevertheless values the Church—not so much as a reminder of the actual past, but as a badge of tribal identification. The Church’s symbols are everywhere in public life, stripped of meaning, appropriated to the common culture. Thus, in the least religiously observant province in Canada, people are untroubled by the presence of a large crucifix at the front of the legislative assembly. The Church’s symbols are not understood to be in the service of the Church, but of the state.
For the Church to perform a secular function, Québec needs nominally Catholic people whose worship will serve as a sort of theatrical backdrop for Sunday brunch, who will maintain the beautiful churches, pay the bills, and stay out of public life.
Here, Québec has been frustrated by a low birthrate. Immigration, as in much of the West, has been the answer to the population problem. And, uniquely mindful of the need for immigration to support the common good in its reductionist, linguistic conception, Québec has encouraged immigration from largely French-speaking countries. But as it turns out, many of these immigrants are religious, and not quiet about it. That would be problematic enough if they were Catholic. But they are largely Muslim, and their presence has prompted the public articulation that speaking French is not sufficient for membership in Québec society; a richer understanding of the common good is needed.
As it did with the pursuit of the linguistic common good, Québec has turned to law. Specifically, Québec’s Secular Charter (formally, Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests) is intended to send a sharp message to persons of religious faith to park their religious identities at home. Employees of public institutions (including schools, hospitals, universities, and government agencies) must “exercise reserve with regard to expressing their religious beliefs” and must not wear “headgear, clothing, jewelry, or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.” The Québec government published a helpful diagram indicating that offending items would include a face veil, head scarf, yarmulke, or turban.
The Québec government could hardly make a clearer statement that its resident Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs are unwelcome. What of its Christians? The Secular Charter has been attacked on the basis that it is anything but even-handed. It makes allowances for “the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.” And because most Christians don’t tend to wear large religious symbols on their person, the ban on wearing large crosses seems more directed at state-funded rap artists than at the faithful.
It’s tempting to conclude that the Catholic Church is getting a free pass with the Secular Charter. But the general principles set out in the Secular Charter are as hostile to Christians as they are to other religious believers. And the reality is that in the things that really matter to them, Christians are having a very hard time of it in Québec. The project of the Québec government—of preserving its cultural inheritance for coming generations—is a project that it brutally denies to all parents of religious faith. The conception of the common good that Québec has chosen and the means that it has chosen to pursue it are deeply unjust.
Consider, for example, Québec’s Ethics and Religious Culture course for elementary and secondary students. It is mandatory in all school systems, whether public or private, state or religious. It has been heavily criticized for not allowing religious schools (and home schools) to teach their religious faith in the way that it informs their lives. They must present it in the same way as other religious faiths, all equally incapable of being either true or false.
The course’s fundamental incompatibility with principles of religious education is a clear breach of the religious freedom of Christian and other religious schools. It is also antithetical to the rights of parents to raise their children within their religious faith. The policy is currently the subject of a constitutional challenge. Loyola v. Quebec (AG) will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014. We can expect a constitutional challenge to the Secular Charter as soon as it is promulgated by Québec’s Legislative Assembly.
I have great sympathy for the project of constructing a society around shared principles, and for an immigration policy that seeks to promote the continued existence of that society over time. But Québec is unstable. It wants to define itself in terms of a Christian past while setting a course for a secularism that is profoundly hostile to all religious believers. The Secular Charter is a heavy-handed and clumsy attempt to preserve a culture that Québec lacks the resources to even define.