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  • June 2019: Québec, between "laïcité" and religious neutrality

Following the adoption of a Bill of law on laïcité in Quebec, in June 2019, this document summarizes the significance and origin of the debate. As is the case in many areas of the world, for nearly twenty years Quebec has been stirred up by public debates about new waves of migration and certain religious minorities. The concept of "open laïcité" made its distinct appearance, in 1999, in a report on religion at school which was commissioned by the Government of Quebec. Laïcité would only begin to be discussed publicly a few years later, in 2007-2008, in connection with the virulent debate about reasonable accommodations.

Open laïcité in school

In 1999, a study committee on religion at school, chaired by journalist and professor Jean-Pierre Proulx, published a report entitled Religion in Secular Schools. A New Perspective for Québec. The Proulx Report proposed the concept of open laïcité as the normative framework of its proposal for cultural teaching of religion, but very little of its content was developed. This was a proposal to deconfessionalize the public education system (primary and secondary levels), while maintaining teaching about religious cultures. It is for this reason that laïcité is said to be "open", distinct from the system in France which does not include any specific teaching about religion. Before the Proulx report, primary and secondary schools offered the option of Catholic, Protestant or moral education, in addition to pastoral care. Following the publication of the report, a government commission led to the deconfessionalization of the school system. Pastoral care gave way to spiritual care and community involvement programs, and the options for moral and religious education were replaced by a single compulsory program called Ethics and Religious Culture (see entry EUREL), in both public and private schools.

Open laïcité and reasonable accommodations

The debate on laïcité deepened when the legal concept of reasonable accommodation to religious requests, applied in Canada since a Supreme Court judgment in 1985, gave rise to media controversy. The outcry was such that it spawned another commission in 2007, known by the name of its co-chairs, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor (Building the Future 2008). Including about 300 pages and dozens of recommendations, the report suggested a project of open laïcité, defining it generally as a search for balance between rights. In the few pages defining it, Bouchard and Taylor distinguished it from the regimes imposing “fairly strict limits on freedom of religious expression”, citing France and its policies prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols at school (p. 20). Generally, the report suggested increasing state neutrality by limiting religious expressions and symbols in the political arena, preserving cultural religious heritage elements, and honouring jurisprudence on reasonable accommodation, with respect for certain ethical and cultural limits. In addition, it recommended the prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols to a limited number of persons exercising specific powers of coercion.

Subsequently, there were no fewer than four controversial bills following this 2008 report. The first two failed because of a lack of consensus. The first, proposed by a federalist liberal government in 2011, was Bill n° 94: An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions. A minority Parti Québécois government (a separatist party) proposed the second, in 2013, entitled Bill n° 60: Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. The next two bills would be adopted.

When the Liberal government took over, it again introduced a bill on reasonable accommodation. In October 2017, the government passed Bill n° 62: An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies. Groups challenging section 10, which forces individuals to give or receive services with “their faces uncovered”, were successful, resulting in the suspension of its application by the Superior Court of Quebec. It is difficult to impose such restrictions in Canada under the charters of rights and freedoms.

Another change of government occurred when the party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ, a party presenting itself as pragmatic federalist, but which is very nationalist) whose leader was a PQ minister, was elected for the first time. On March 28, 2019, the CAQ filed Bill n° 21: An Act respecting the laicity of the State. In order to bypass the charters of rights and recourse to the courts, this project provided for the use of the “notwithstanding or derogation clause” (section 33). This use is provided for in the Canadian Constitution:

“Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter (33.1); A declaration made under section (1) shall cease to have effect five years after it comes into force or on such earlier date as may be specified in the declaration (33.3); Parliament or the legislature of a province may re-enact a declaration made under section (33.4)”.

While all four bills addressed several issues related to reasonable accommodations, the debates focused solely on the wearing of religious symbols. The Liberal party, both in 2011 and in 2017, limited the ban to having the “face covered”. The Parti Québécois and the CAQ imposed a ban on a large number of public servants. Bill 21 presented by the CAQ did not go as far as the PQ on this point, but its appendix II listing the public functions concerned was very thorough and included primary and secondary teachers, the most controversial aspect. The CAQ argued that all those functions exercise a certain power of ‘coercion’, referring to the Bouchard-Taylor report (in fact extending this concept to several more functions than the report itself did). The use of the derogation clause suggested that no legal action would be able to contest the applications of Bill 21. At the time of writing this text, however, the project has already been challenged in court. A long judicial battle is on the horizon, and adversaries will certainly go to the UN if necessary. If the CAQ dreams of reproducing the French Republican model on this issue, the North American context and its rather flexible uses of freedom of conscience and religion pose obstacles to a prohibition of the wearing of religious symbols, which would not be without deep controversy.

To conclude, we could make two points. First, parties characterized by their more assertive and identity nationalism include the concept of laïcité in their Bills. The Liberal Party uses the concept of “religious neutrality”, more in tune with the Canadian legislative context. Secondly, while the Bills deal with several aspects of the management of reasonable accommodation requested by individuals for religious reasons, the public debates focus mainly on the symbolic and sartorial aspects, as was the case in France, notably in the context of the Stasi Commission.

Sources:
- Lefebvre, S. et al. (ed.) 2018 Dix ans plus tard : La commission Bouchard-Taylor, succès ou échec ?, Montréal : Québec Amérique, pp. 75-86.
- Lefebvre, S. et al. (2017) Public Commissions on Cultural and Religious Diversity: Analysis, Reception and Challenges, UK: Routledge.
- Proulx J.-P., Study committee on religion at school, Religion in Secular Schools. A New Perspective for Québec, Québec : Minister of Education, Government of Québec, 1999.
- Several public documents can be downloaded on the directory PLURI.

D 26 June 2019    ASolange Lefebvre

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