Let me be the first to greet the dawn of a phallocratic golden age in the city of St. John’s. I loved the first season of Mad Men and I’m excited to see how the b’ys handle the next downtown parking complexes. As a bonus, a great way for the all-male council to raise new revenue could be to open a Long Dick’s Sausage Emporium franchise inside city hall. Hell, they’re already halfway there.
But it could always be worse. Take the current situation in Quebec. The Parti Québécois government last month unveiled legislation that would establish a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ aimed at entrenching an aggressive secularism in all the province’s public institutions. Well, sort of. Daycare workers and elementary school teachers would be prohibited from wearing hijabs or turbans in the classroom, for instance, but the enormous crucifix on the wall of the province’s National Assembly wouldn’t be going anywhere. If you think this looks a little one-sided, you’re not alone. This proposal has raised a good many hackles both inside Quebec and out.
In a lot of ways, it’s easy to understand where the Péquistes are coming from. Militant secularism has been a hallmark of French society since the Reign of Terror. This idea took a little longer to cross the Atlantic, but by the time René Levesque came to power in 1976 the Quiet Revolution had effectively jettisoned Catholicism from public life in Quebec. To be Québécois in the 21st century is to be cool about religion, and emphatically egalitarian. And it’s an easy argument to make: separation of church and state is one of the basic requirements of a liberal democracy. We are a multicultural society, and precisely because there are so many different, competing ideas about how the universe works (and how we behave ourselves in it), the state must ensure that we don’t privilege any one perspective in particular. Instead, it has to establish a public space where we can put our differences aside to live and work together. Religion is an intensely private, personal affair—our religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are ethical differences, and these can be dangerously divisive. In public there must be only Québécois: citizens as absolute equals.
This is a beautiful idea in theory. In practice, as it is proposed in Quebec right now, this is not what we would see. An image of the crucified Redeemer hangs in judgement above the seat of public power in Quebec City. A giant cross at the summit of Mont Royal would continue to cast its shadow over one of the most multicultural cities in the western world. The PQ government insists this Christian iconography must remain in place, because they are symbols of Québécois history and culture. And, insofar as ‘Québécois’ stands for the white, ‘pure laine’ French-Canadians who can trace their ancestry back to the fur trappers who first kicked the Mohawk out of Oka, they’re right. Catholicism, even if it’s now just a wistful cultural memory, has played a defining role in French-Canadian identity.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and even celebrating this. But many Quebeckers are not pure laine. Many are anglophones, and many more are the allophones that give Canadian cities their cosmopolitan shimmer. Laws preventing religious expression are effectively preventing these minority groups from expressing their identities in public. This is implicitly recognized by the PQ in their very insistence on keeping Catholic relics in place for everyone to see. They understand how important this kind of cultural expression is. They are even prepared to accept that ‘ostentatious’ religious iconography can exist in the public sphere without puncturing its secular pluralism, but only if it’s the white man’s religion, to remind everyone who is ‘really’ Québécois. If you think what I’m saying is harsh, go check on YouTube for videos of just how brutally this sentiment has been communicated to minorities since this Charter was announced. On the streets, this law makes Quebec society more hostile to minority cultures.
And it is here that ‘Quebec Values’ run up against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Charter is founded on the recognition that religious and cultural symbolism—that is, group identity—doesn’t need to be repressed to create an egalitarian secular space. The only requirement is that no one belief system is privileged above any other. There is nothing wrong with a Sikh carrying a ceremonial knife in solidarity with all God’s children in a space where everyone else is equally free to respectfully express their own metaphysical commitments. This is a formally thinner, yet infinitely richer, secularism. And compared to the Quebec Charter, it’s also a lot more honest.
At any rate, in a case where a provincial value goes up against a Charter-sustained Canadian one, the former will be crushed in a court of law. Stephen Harper has signalled that his government would make this move. But given how well ‘Quebec Values’ are polling in la belle province, such a ruling might be the catalyst sovereigntists need to start lurching us towards a new referendum. La plus ça change, hein?
Kathy Dunderdale, meanwhile, can only dream that her bad ideas might poll half as well as Pauline Marois’. The latest CRA opinion poll confirmed last month that the Tory government has bottomed out in third place, behind both the NDP and whatever it is that passes for the Liberal party these days. Roughly two-thirds of everybody is dissatisfied with the government’s performance, and the premier herself is so deeply disliked that The Telegram literally ran a front page op-ed calling on her to resign. Let there be no doubt: heavy is the head that wears the crown in this province.
And in all seriousness, resignation is not such a bad idea. It’s very unlikely, barring direct divine intervention and/or a Faustian bargain, that Dunderdale’s personal brand is ever going to recover to the point that it’s electorally viable. But there remains an outside chance that this doesn’t carry over to the PC party. By law, if the premier resigns, we need to have an election within the year. If this happened in the immediate future, it would catch the Liberals—their chief rivals, according to the poll—in a compromised position as they recovered from what increasingly appears to be a bitter leadership contest. As the centre-left parties fought it out, the Tories could tap whatever brain trust they might have waiting in the wings, rebrand with a new leader, and conceivably stand a fighting chance of retaining state power in the next election. It’s a real Hail Mary, but I think it’s their best bet.
Of course, this will never happen. The latest PC convention more or less confirms the tropes that the public is reading into the Dunderdale administration—that they’re insulated, decadent, and condescending. They’re not going to make any serious changes, because they don’t think anything’s wrong. If you don’t understand or like Muskrat Falls, or Bill 29, or the last provincial budget, tough—you’re the one with the problem. Why does the government have to justify itself to you? If you don’t weep with affirmation at the sight of Steve Kent’s tweets, then truly the Lord has hardened your heart.
In Quebec, at least, the government has the poll numbers to support a holier-than-thou approach. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government is taking its mandate largely on blind faith.