Crucifix has deep constitutional roots in Quebec

Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed freedom of Quebecers to practise the Catholic faith

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Monday, May 26, 2008

In the aim of promoting a secular society, the authors of the Bouchard-Taylor report wrote that "the crucifix must be removed" from the wall behind the speaker's chair in the National Assembly.

"We do not believe that the crucifix in the National Assembly has its place in a secular state," wrote historian Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, the eminent academics who lent their names to the commission on reasonable accommodation.

Their logic, with a view to advancing what they term "open secularism," is impeccable. But it takes no account of, and is completely at variance with, more than two and a quarter centuries of constitutional tradition that is the foundation of Quebec and Canada itself.

This goes back to the Quebec Act of 1774, and is central to the asymmetrical features of Confederation in the British North America Act of 1867.

The Quebec Act explicitly guaranteed the freedom to practise the Catholic faith. It also restored French civil law alongside British common law.

Furthermore, the Quebec Act allowed Catholics to hold public office, and removed a reference to the Protestant denomination in office holders' oath of allegiance to the king of England. It allowed the Catholic church to collect the religious tax known as the tithe, and permitted the Jesuits to return to Quebec.

These enlightened and generous gestures by the British occupiers were extremely well received by the population. And they achieved their immediate political purpose. The territory formerly known as New France or Canada did not, after the Quebec Act, join in the American Revolution. In other words, the Quebec Act changed the course of North American history, and enabled the emergence of Canada nearly a century later, ending any thoughts of an American takeover following the U.S. Civil War.

It was, in effect, the religious freedoms guaranteed to Catholics, along with the restoration of French civil law, that guaranteed the survival of the French language and culture on the northern half of this continent.

And that was reflected in the BNA Act, which in Article 93 guaranteed the place of Catholic and Protestant schools in Quebec. It required nothing less than a bilateral constitutional amendment, negotiated between the Chrétien and Bouchard governments, to move to linguistic rather than denominational school boards in Quebec.

The status of the English-language minority was also protected in Article 133, which guaranteed both French and English as recognized languages and legislature. Asymmetrical federalism wasn't invented with the Health Accord of 2004, it has been with us since 1867, and is central to the bargain of Confederation.

Jean Charest saw this immediately when he received his copy of the Bouchard-Taylor report, and even as it was released last Thursday, the government tabled a motion in the legislature affirming "our attachment to our religious and historic heritage represented by the crucifix."

While Charest was pre-empting any blowback from Catholics, still a big majority of the population, he has the history exactly right.

While all churches might be struggling with attendance, while the Catholic church is no longer a dominant force in Quebec society, the fact remains that it was, until the Quiet Revolution was launched by Jean Lesage after 1960. The role of the church was pre-eminent in schools and hospitals, and in every municipality in the province. A village might not have had a town hall, but it had a church steeple. Generations of Quebecers were baptized, married and buried from there.

There is much that is admirably pragmatic, and a lot of simple common sense, in the Bouchard-Taylor report. Quite rightly, they observe that the "crisis" over accommodating religious and cultural minorities is more perceived than real, though they are correct in noting a disturbing revival of anti-Semitism.

For example, they say there's no problem with the hijab, but note that a woman might have trouble teaching a class while wearing a burqa. Right.

And the goal of an egalitarian and secular state is by and large an admirable one, but needn't be achieved at a cost to our constitutional heritage, the very foundation of that state.

Anecdotally, here's a story involving the crucifix in the Quebec legislature. In the days when Georges-Émile Lapalme was Liberal leader, the party's finance critic was Maurice Hartt, a Jewish member from Montreal. Once, when he asked a question in the House, the reply of the premier, Maurice Duplessis, was that Lapalme sent a Jew to speak on his behalf.

Hartt pointed to the crucifix and replied: "There is a Jew who has been speaking to you for 2,000 years and you haven't heard him."

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard