20 August 2012

Secularism in Québec

Oh, high election season, when we all come together to throw the minorities under the bus! You might be able to detect a certain frustration I have with how Québec relates to its minorities, especially its religious minorities.

Now, I am no fan of religion. I am, however, a fan of respecting people's rights and their freedom of expression up to — and not including — the point where those rights and that expression encroach on those of others. If people want to believe fairy tales and wear cute little items of clothing or jewellery to show those nutty beliefs, they can go ahead and do it. They just can't use their fairy tales to stop anyone else from accessing a service or exercising a right.

How do we guarantee the secularism of the state? By ensuring that its institutions are not identified with any religion, including the formerly dominant one that Québec society all but abandoned more than forty years ago. Crucifix in the National Assembly or in a courtroom? Out! Prayer before the debates in the National Assembly or a City Council meeting? Out! These are almost invariably the expressions of the formerly dominant religion. They are not a part of the secular society in which we live.

I draw another line, though, at the level of the individual. I don't see the harm in someone's wearing their little cross around their neck, their kippa or their hijab on their head. Not even in the context of government services. I will confess that the niqab (face covering) still jars me a bit, but if a public being served must see the face of the person acting as an instrument of the state, there are surely adaptations that can be made to accommodate someone who (for the sake of their fairy tale) must cover the face. This might be a position that is not dealing with people face to face, and there are plenty such positions in the public service.

If, on the other hand, we must always see the faces of all people acting as instruments of the state, there are some modifications to be made to the visors and gas masks worn by 'our' riot police to protect themselves from their own weapons.

Where the line is clear for me, however, is in the actual delivery of services to citizens. Nobody gets to cite his or her religion to refuse to do a duty outlined in the job description. We keep hearing stories from the US of people resigning from their positions rather than registering same sex marriages and to that I would say "Yes, that's exactly what should happen." If you are unwilling to do your job because of the fairy tale you believe in, find another job.

I was in a courtroom once a few years ago to hear a sentence being delivered. When we arrived, we all noticed that the court clerk was wearing a hijab. My first thought was "Wow! Cultural diversity reaches the judicial system in Québec." Some of my companions, on the other hand, were outraged, which I will never understand. This woman did her job and her religion didn't seem to impact any aspect of that other than what she wore to work.

The variety of fairy tales that people believe in, and the quaint customs they observe in the name of those fairy tales, are a part of a society open to the world. We are all in agreement that public services (including commercial services offered to the general public) in Québec must all be available in French. As much as we can, we ought to strive to reach people in other languages, too, without excluding people from the workplace when we don't offer support for them to acquire those additional language skills. Beyond the commonality of French, our government should look like our society, in all its diversity.

The institutions and the services provided must be neutral, but the individuals who provide them ought to be as diverse as the population they serve.

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