Legislating Secularism in Quebec: Where Does It Come from? Where Is It Going?

Article excerpt

While the Parti Quebecois's failure to win reelection has put its Charter on the shelf, the debate over secularism is not over. All parties in the recent election campaign promised some kind of legislation on secularism, including--at least to a degree--the Quebec Liberal Party, now in power.

The issue of laicite did not magically appear on the Quebec political scene last year. It has been a feature of Quebec public discourse for decades--indeed, for well over a century. To understand its meaning and prospects, we need to place it in the context of republican thinking originating in France, of Quebec's ideal of cultural convergence, and of the relevant jurisprudence of Canada and in other Western societies.

The republican roots of Quebec secularism

One cannot appreciate the motivation underlying a charter of secularism without understanding the influence that French civic republicanism has had on the development of the political thinking of La Belle Province. The first major push toward republicanism came from the leaders of the failed Lower Canada Rebellion, whose 1838 Declaration of Independence proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Lower Canada. Among the document's key points were the abolition of all feudal and seignieurial privileges and the complete separation of church and state--including the elimination of the mandatory tithe to the Catholic Church.

In 1905, the Third French Republic adopted the Loi sur la separation des Eglises et de l'Etat. From this point on, the public sphere in France acquired a quasi-sacrosanct character and laicite was enshrined as a fundamental tenet of French republicanism. Citizens would enjoy complete religious freedom in the private sphere while, in the public sphere, the Republic would enjoy complete freedom from religion. This conception of the public space gradually took hold in Quebec as the wheels of the Quiet Revolution turned and the Quebec people en masse began rejecting religious intrusion into civil and political affairs.

The influence of French civic republicanism in Quebec is evident in several highly contested reforms. The obvious example of how French and Quebec republican thinking perceives the state is the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) of 1977. While classical liberalism views the state as the principal threat to personal freedom, republicanism views it as the ultimate tool through which individuals are liberated from their birth condition, especially from communitarian and market pressures beyond their control. Whatever their situation, the Republic offers individuals equality, legitimacy and the chance to become one's own person, liberating them (if they so wish) from the constraints of their background. The same reasoning can be found in the act to abolish religious school boards--and amend article 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867-20 years later.


Liberal democracy claims to offer individuals the same possibility, but essentially leaves them to their own devices. By contrast, the Republic not only makes liberation a theoretical possibility but actively provides individuals with the concrete tools they need to change their condition. Hence the Charter of the French Language freed Quebec's francophone majority--which, in turn, forms the bulk of Canada's French-speaking minority --from a liberal marketplace that deprived their language of any economic value. This liberation came at a price for those who would rather have continued to use their economic clout to maintain the market dominance of English, but time has shown that this cost was more than offset by the unprecedented improvement of the francophone condition in North America which the oft-vilified Bill 101 ushered in.

The cultural convergence ideal

The federal government's policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework has been regularly rejected by every successive Quebec government and is one of the primary factors in Quebec's ongoing refusal to sign the 1982 constitution. …