09/19/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

Secularism and Canada's Divided Left

There are many differences between the platonic idea of secularism and the secularist statute proposed last week in Quebec. These differences will doubtless count against the Charter of Values, especially in English Canada, where a discrete conception of religious freedom and suspicions of sovereigntist motivations have elicited much scepticism. Yet even if we bracket these factors, the meaning of secularism in an ideal sense remains a matter of significant disagreement.

The Toronto Star's columnist Haroon Siddiqui believes that the charter project is guided by bigotry against religious minorities and especially Muslims. Perhaps he's right about that, but a separate and interesting detail of his September 12 column entitled "Pauline Marois issues fatwa on Quebec secularism" was his ideological classification of the Parti Québécois's objective: "Marois is engaged in an ugly cultural warfare of the right-wing Republican kind."

Aside from Siddiqui's tendency to attribute everything he disagrees with to right-wing Republicanism, this particular statement is most certainly false. Firstly, describing any political movement in contemporary Quebec as "right wing" is problematic because there is effectively no conservative movement in that province. The political parties are constructed along the lines of the secession question, not economic or social ideology. In fact, all three major parties are social-democratic in orientation.

Secondly, the representatives of Canada's political right, both in government and in the punditry trade, have almost unanimously spoken against the proposed Charter. Due to their deference for religious freedom, conservatives oppose attempts by the state to involve itself in regulating matters of religious expression.

And despite the more prevalent disapproval of Islam among conservatives, many have spoken in favour of the right of Muslim women to don face coverings, so long as they do so voluntarily. This differs sharply from the péquiste line, which is concerned with "ostentatious" displays of religion, including the niqab and the burqa.

Yet the real partisan conflict here is not between members of the Left and the Right but within the Left itself. Generally, the supporters of various forms of social progressivism outside of Quebec share similar views on both Canadian federalism and on the so-called culture war issues. But when it comes to the government's relationship to religious minorities and to the meaning of state neutrality, the Left proves itself to be a divided faction. So far as I understand, the following are the three dominant perspectives that relate to the proposed Charter:

1. Multiculturalism: While these people tend to disagree with the moral views of religious conservatives and are not usually religious themselves, they are completely against the proposed initiative because of its perceived targeting of religious minorities. Multiculturalists believe that it is the foremost responsibility of the state and its institutions to actively accommodate cultural minorities, including religious minorities. The notion that a majority can penalize a minority on the ground that the latter is underhandedly "imposing its values" seems nonsensical to multiculturalists because a majority or dominant group cannot, by their definition, be aggrieved by a minority one. This is the principal reason for which they are completely opposed to the Charter.

2. Secular Progressivism: For these Leftists, commitment to the secularist cause is inseparable from their support for various objectives in social reform. So they tend to admire the brand of secularism in Quebec, which was ahead of the game in legally-recognizing homosexual couples, has less of a societal taboo about abortion, and is leading the charge to promote physician-assisted suicide. But they are also puzzled by the Québécois's fixation on Islam; the traditional enemy faction for secular progressives is socially-conservative Christianity, not an immigrant Muslim creed. The combination of admiration for the results of Quebec secularism and their scepticism at the péquiste's Islamic emphasis make the secular progressive conflicted on the subject of the secular charter.

3. Pure Secularism: This group is fully on board for Marois's charter and essentially accepts the reasons she has given in its defense. Pure secularists support the separation of church and state for its own sake, and reject claims of oppression by religious minorities in a place like Quebec. They are more or less openly contemptuous of Islam and accept the emphasis being placed on Islamic accoutrements in the Charter, though they believe that Christian symbols kept for "cultural heritage", such as the cross displayed in the legislature, should be removed. They view multiculturalism as a relativistic deception.

There are enough positions here to represent an entire spectrum of views, all of which can be explained with reference to the current debate about secularism in Quebec. The divisions within the Left on this prominent issue cannot be simply glossed over, either by attributing the Charter movement to Quebec ethnic nationalism alone, or by misrepresenting it as an underhanded effort by the Left's political opponents. It would be of service to the argument if these disagreements could be acknowledged, rather than dismissed as the fruit of prejudice.


This article was also published in the Prince Arthur Herald.

Quebec Values Charter