The recent event in the city of Saguenay should not have come as a surprise: the mayor, Jean Tremblay, was ordered by the Quebec Human Rights court to stop all religious practises during city council meetings, and to remove all religious objects from the assembly room. A previous judgement by the same court had already crucified the prayer in municipal council in the case of the city of Laval and the glorious Vaillancourt mayor. Why, then, does everybody talk about it?
It may be because of the personality of the mayor of Saguenay. Jean Tremblay is, indeed, quite a character, and he attracts media attention quite easily. (Almost as easily as mayor Labeaume). But the heart of the problem doesn’t seem to be there, nor in fact in the prayer itself: the reason why everybody has an opinion to share might be because of the cultural values that so many Quebecers still attach to the Catholic religion.
For many post Quiet Revolution thinkers, the Catholic tradition implies rape, abuse, war, death, taxes… they oppose to its manifestation in every way possible. Some might even call this the ‘atheist crusade‘. The only problem with this crusade: as Patrice Lagacé wrote recently, the erasure of the Catholic symbols from our institutions is made in the name of emptiness. Isn’t atheism the belief in nothing?
On the other side, for many defenders of mayor Tremblay’s position, the tribunal’s decision constitutes an attack on the fundamental values, even to the identity of Quebecers. Here again, like for the “accomodements raisonables“, is the intense, and dangerous, slipping slope on which we are dancing as a society. It is now a fight of ‘us‘ against ‘them‘, the others. One important thing to notice here: complaints to tribunals about the religious manifestations in public spheres have rarely come from ethnic groups; rather, they emanate from atheistic zealots who cannot bare the thought of hearing a word about Jesus, as their eyes bleed from looking at a crucifix on a wall.
This battle between the ‘real‘ Quebecers and the rest has been raging for years now. To most of the French Canadians, the problem is that they are less and less allowed to manifest they religious heritage, while other religious groups are permitted to show theirs. We can here refer to the situation about the Christmas tress a few years back (which are, in fact, of pagan heritage), the kirpan, the hidjab, etc… And those are the questions that mayor Tremblay is asking, in his appeal of the decision.
Tribunals are here talking about imposing a religion to citizens. For them, there shouldn’t be a use of the civil power to show, portray or publicise any specific religion. Should we here be talking publicity, and see coercion into a crucifix?
Publicity, perhaps. The recent court case certainly has been a serious publicity boost for both mayor Tremblay and the Catholic religion. Coercion? Certainly not. Nobody is forcing anyone into bowing before the cross, or into kissing the feet of the Christ. Rather, as the National Assembly suggested, the crucifix might symbolizes the past, the heritage and culture of Quebec’s society.
This debate also lies elsewhere. The tribunal has imputed Jean Tremblay with the 30,000$ responsibility for forcing his personal religious views on the plaintiff. The problem here is that Jean Tremblay was elected by his peers. Certainly, he did not base his campaign on Catholicism; but neither does he base his daily routine activities on those grounds. Except, of course, that dreadful prayer, which a nonbeliever simply doesnt want to sit it out.
It is all about the religious neutrality of the state, most will say. But can we really ask to remove all ostensible religious signs from the public place, when one of the best known tourist features in Montreal are, amongst others, the gazillion churches that map out the city, as well as the Mont Royal cross. It might be pushing it a bit far, but should we tear those down as well? (The satirical idea was proposed by Patrice Garant, Public Law professor at Université Laval in an open letter he submitted to La Presse)
In the case of Montreal, it is more intuitive. There is no prayer at the assembly, and the crucifix in place seems indeed to be part of the tradition. Montreal was, after all, established as a Catholic mission colony at first. And the crucifix in place was put in place by mayor Drapeau. But there only needs to be one complaint about this for the crucifix to be forced down by force of Human Rights. In a multicultural city like Montreal, does it still have its place?
When people suggest that we replace the crucifix with another symbol, more historical and locally relevant, they forget that there is nothing more locally relevant in a historical sense than that same crucifix. New France had an important catholic mission attached to its foundation; Quebec was, up until the 1960s, the most religious region in the Americas, if not in the Christian world, with its astonishing amount of nuns and priests. To deny this is to deny our society’s past.
On a personal note, the crucifix reminds me of a religion my grandparents cherished. It exemplifies love, toleration, self-sacrifice. I have a hard time seeing how this simple object can offend. I have stopped attending church about 10 years ago; I stopped believing in God even before that. Yet, the crucifix, for all the background it refers to, and for what it culturally means, holds some sort of obscene attraction. Maybe is it that obscenity that the laicism crusaders fight?
One’s freedom ends where someone else’s begins. The key is to cohabit in respect of each other’s rights and beliefs.