Life in a Godless Place

By Nicolas Langelier

For me, as for the vast majority of Quebecers of my generation (I was born in 1973), religion was an abstraction, something that happened to inhabitants of less modernly inclined countries, like Pakistan, say, or the United States.

Obviously, you can’t expunge 350 years of Catholic fervor in the matter of a generation, and religion was still faintly visible, like a watermark: in the steeples that punctuate the Montréal skyline and the tin-roofed churches that dot the countryside; in our profanity that consists of strung-together religious terms such as tabernacle and ciborium; in our national literature, dramaturgy, and cinematography; in historical accounts, be they about politics or social issues or apparently unconnected subjects like colonization or botany; in the childhood stories of my parents, with their scary tales of convent life and boarding-school education. But religion had become a purely cultural factor, as much a part of my heritage as my eighteenth-century accent or my maple syrup habit, but without any actual connection to the modern world. The last churchgoing generation—that of my grandparents—was slowly disappearing.

At school, it was still possible to get religion classes where, for an hour a week, you could at least learn the basics of the life of Jesus and what was a ciborium, anyway; but many, like me, opted instead for “moral education,” where you were taught how to be a morally responsible citizen in a world where God was dead. Politicians never made any reference to divinity, lest they appear to be a throwback to “the great darkness” of the pre-Quiet Revolution era. At award shows, singers and actors didn’t thank God for their success. Couples didn’t even bother to get married anymore, and having their children baptized was done out of habit, when at all. This was a postreligious society.

And then, around 2006, religion started to make the news again in Québec, though not because of a dramatic return to Catholicism for the old-stock, white, French-speaking majority. The churches weren’t any less empty than they had been for the past 40 years—they were still being turned into condos and bars and concert halls. The news stories revolved around the religious life of the néo- Québécois, those immigrants who had settled here in recent decades. These often very religious individuals and communities were finding it difficult to adapt to a society where secularism had become something of a dogma.

New examples of this problematic integration seemed to come out in the media every week. The Supreme Court of Canada, for example, ruled in favor of a Montréal Sikh teenager who wanted to wear his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school. The Port of Montréal had to review its workplace rules after orthodox Sikh truck drivers objected to wearing safety helmets instead of their turbans. A Montréal YMCA frosted the windows of an exercise room in response to its Hasidic Jewish neighbors who wanted to protect their children from the sight of lightly clad women. Montréal policewomen were advised in a training brochure to let their male colleagues take charge when visiting Hasidic neighborhoods. Elections Canada decreed that veiled Muslim women would be allowed to vote in all upcoming national elections and referendums without showing their faces. A Jewish teenager refused to play several key matches for his Gatineau junior hockey team because they fell on a Jewish holiday.

Religion was back in public life with a vengeance. Populist commentators got in on the action, as did politicians, who sensed votes could be garnered in denouncing the situation. Soon, it was the number one subject of discussion, with sometimes absurd results. In January 2007, the small village of Hérouxville published its “code of life,” in which foreigners were advised that public stonings and female circumcision were not allowed in the community. That no foreigners lived in Hérouxville, or would have wanted to even if you paid them, didn’t seem to make any difference; the noble village aldermen had stepped in to uphold Western civilization.

To calm things down, Québec premier Jean Charest announced in February 2007 the appointment of a royal commission on the matter: the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—more commonly known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Over three months, the commission held public audiences all over Québec, hearing from individuals, unions, political parties, religious organizations, and community groups. All kinds of things—some good, some bad, some plainly ridiculous—were said at these hearings, which in many respects became a kind of public therapy between new and old-stock Quebecers.

In May 2008, the commission released its final report. “The foundations of collective life in Québec are not in a critical situation,” the commissioners wrote. The media reports of the last couple of years were a “psychodrama.” Nonetheless, the government must adapt to a pluralist, secular society and play a leading role in establishing better guidelines for “interculturalism” and an “open secularism.” Many of the 37 recommendations regard secularism and how it must be protected. One of them, for instance, prohibits judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers, and prison guards from wearing religious signs and clothing while on the job.

The report was generally well received. Premier Charest promised to respond quickly with measures reflecting the commission’s recommendations and stressing Québec society’s “profound” values, including the “rule of French, gender equality [and] the separation of church and state.” A year later, it is as if the “psychodrama” never happened. It is never mentioned in conversation, and rarely if ever by the media. Maybe this is a tribute to the commissioners’ nuanced and balanced report, or the result of a great lassitude that took hold of Quebecers after months of debate, but I suspect it’s because other matters have taken precedence in news coverage: the economic meltdown, a federal political crisis, the centennial of the Montréal Canadiens hockey team.

Nicolas Langelier is a freelance writer and social commentator. He lives in Montréal.

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