When the story gets into the debates on religious signs

Quand l’histoire s’invite dans les débats sur les signes religieux

Photo: Province of Quebec
A photograph undated of a religious, and his class in a primary school in Quebec.

Once per month, The Duty starts to enthusiasts of history the challenge to decrypt a topical theme from a comparison with an event or a historical figure.

In recent years, several controversies related to immigration and religious signs ostentatious broke into the public space of quebec : the crisis of reasonable accommodations, charter of values, reception of refugees and, more recently, during the last election campaign, the proposal of a “values test” which would be submitted to the immigrants. The day after his election, the government of François Legault has rekindled the idea to ban certain religious symbols in the public service, with a bill which would be tabled in the spring of 2019.

During these debates, politicians, columnists, citizens, and identity groups have formulated discourse involving the history of Quebec are calling for a stricter control of reasonable accommodation and religious signs. The analysis of newspaper articles, diaries, open letters and manifestos, as I’ve done for the period 2007-2018, reveals the use of a dominant narrative : that of the advent of a modern nation, secular and egalitarian, located in the legacy of the quiet Revolution.

Several sociologists and political scientists, including Caroline Jacquet, have also observed the mobilization of this story during the past few years. This rhetorical strategy raises several questions about the use — or the instrumentalisation of history as “argument from authority” in the context of debates of contemporary society.

Modernity, secularism, and equality

The dominant narrative in these discourses brings to the stage a history of Quebec, which translates into a long walk, following a linear progress towards modernity. The quiet Revolution and the décléricalisation public institutions are seen as the decisive moments of this transition to modernity, marking a break with the Great Darkness.

Quand l’histoire s’invite dans les débats sur les signes religieux

Photo: Nathalie St-Pierre
Camille Robert

For many, this process would complete by introducing what they call “genuine” secularism of the State, including the prohibition of wearing religious symbols for government employees. This project would be in continuity with the modernization begun during the quiet Revolution, or even earlier by some resistance movements, such as the one that led to the publication of the manifesto refus global.

For these stakeholders, the secularism is inscribed in this vision of linear progress. The Declaration of intellectuals for secularism, published in 2010 and co-signed by several personalities, including Bernard Landry and Guy Rocher, offers a good example. An important part of the text is devoted to demonstrate the place of secularism in québec history, approaching in turn the separation of Church and State defended by the patriots, the women’s right to vote, the quiet Revolution and denominational school structures.

Through this historicization, the signatories wish to demonstrate that the idea of secularism in Quebec dates back to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries and that the current debate would not therefore be ” a defensive reaction in the face of immigrant minorities recent “.

In the narrative put forward, equality for women and sexual minorities would depend on the passage to modernity and the establishment of a secular State. Many speeches suggest that this tie would have already been acquired thanks to the quiet Revolution, and that it would even be listed in the “core values” of quebec society. A threat mainly coming from the” outside ” would, however, make this acquired precarious : some accommodations or religious signs would, by their very presence a setback for equality between the genders. In this logic, the intervention of secular State would then protect and guarantee the rights of women, and would be even in continuity with the feminist struggles waged in the 1960s and 1970s.

History or rhetorical strategy ?

This story has less to do with the history of the province of Quebec with a rhetorical strategy designed to deny the accommodation and the presence of religious signs — mainly those associated with religions muslim, jewish, and sikh — in the name of a past to preserve.

The idea that the history of Quebec would be a long journey towards modernity, with a clear separation between the Great Darkness — which serves as the foil — and the quiet Revolution, is no unanimous view among historians. Several studies have challenged this failure showing the progressive elements of quebec society, and even of the clergy, before 1960.

In addition, the idea of a quiet Revolution which we have inherited as the values for the equal rights for women and for sexual minorities seem implausible to anyone interested in the discourses and mobilisations of the social movements of the time. The women’s liberation movement, which emerged at the turn of the 1970s, aimed in particular to fight against the legal subordination, economic, political, sexual and conjugal women, still tangible, despite the reforms of the quiet Revolution.

It seems risky to release a thread from the debates surrounding secularism in the province’s history. Many stakeholders are unaware of the different implementations socio-historical secularism and give it rather a scope transhistorique. The separation between Church and State, defended by the patriots, can it really be put in relation with the movement of secularization of the 1960s, and then with the recent debate on reasonable accommodation, given that the principles, including the décléricalisation, denominational or secular, were not the same and were in a very different environment ?

Several scholars who have examined the use of the concept of laïcité in Quebec, including the sociologist Micheline Milot, reveal that the latter was little used until the 1990s. It is especially at the beginning of the 2000s it has emerged in discussions about the minority religions, especially in the context of post-11 September and on the occasion of the crisis of reasonable accommodation. The mobilization of the secular, therefore, refers less to a narrative through the history of québec as a defensive response to the “problem” of religious pluralism.

Significant decreases

As regards gender equality, the work of a number of historians have revealed that it was not necessarily related to modernity and secularism. Thus, it is possible to see significant declines in the condition of women in many of the moments associated with the modernization or secularization.

For example, the historian Allan Greer notes a “masculinization” of citizenship and the political in the rebellions of 1837-1838, while women have been relegated to the domestic space. Three years earlier, the women owners had lost their right of suffrage at the initiative of deputies, the patriots, who defended, however, the values of republicanism and secularism.

The mobilization of the secular, therefore, refers less to a narrative through the history of québec as a defensive response to the “problem” of religious pluralism

— Camille Robert


More than a century later, at the time of the décléricalisation school and hospital in the wake of the quiet Revolution, the sociologists Danielle Juteau and Nicole Laurin have pointed out that it was mainly men who took advantage of positions of power in the public sector, to the detriment of women and especially of nuns.

According to historian Joan Scott, “secularism and modernity have introduced” a new order of subordination of women ” in establishing the separation between the private and public spheres, a separation that was reinforced by a speech from so-called rational and scientific. It shows that secularism is not, in fact, never been established to ensure the equality of men and women in the modern western world. In the French context, it was not until the Twenty-first century, equality has become an important concern in the eyes of politicians, and this, always in the face of islam.

Step away from the story

The concepts of modernity, secularism and equality must be questioned in terms of their meanings, depending on the context and who the people are, to reveal the social relations which underlie it.

As pointed out by the sociologist Leila Benhadjoudja, the story of a long walk to a modern State, secular and egalitarian, that she describes as ” sécularonationaliste “, that fuels an antagonism between the conception of a ” We “quebec secular, feminist and pro-LGBTIQ and “Them” muslim, homophobic and sexist. It seems important then to deconstruct the binary oppositions between secularism and religious fundamentalism, between the liberation of women by secularism and oppression of women by religious practices. They undermine the debate and make it impossible to understand how, in several circumstances, religious practices can be emancipatory for some women and that, in other cases, secularism may be a loss of power.

Although it is necessary to take the debate over the place that we want to give to the academic accommodations and religious symbols — and, consequently, on the individuals and groups concerned, the past should not intrude in these discussions as an argument of authority, with symbols and values transhistoriques to preserve. History is not a set of lessons that would allow us to decide, today, when controversies.

If history can be useful to us, it is less like a series of stories frozen to make it available to a public that, as a practical and critical approaches to facing the past, while offering as much as possible of the tools to interpret it. With the upcoming arrival of another draft of the law on religious signs, it seems more important to worry about turning, this time, our gaze to the future.

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