History explains aggressive secularism law
"This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window." Mark Twain’s famous quip, made in Montreal in 1881, captured the enormous presence of Roman Catholicism in Quebec.
I doubt if the American author would have ever guessed that in less than a century Catholic power there would virtually collapse.
Through the first six decades of the 20th century almost 90 per cent of Quebec Catholics would attend Mass regularly. Now it hovers below 15 per cent. A Catholic church building permanently closes its doors every week.
Yes, Protestant Evangelicals in Quebec did experience renewal and growth in the 1970s, but continuing Christian witness in la belle province faces some tough realities.
The trickiest one for non-Quebecers to appreciate is how Quebec spirituality is burdened by its political past, more than in most other Canadian provinces.
Catholic leadership got too comfortable with political leadership, most memorably in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s under premier Maurice Duplessis, who famously stated the bishops ate out of his hand. Today many dismiss both as antifeminist, authoritarian and antimodern – and that time as la grande noirceur (the Great Darkness).
It’s an easy mistake to minimize the potency of the past in shaping contemporary religious attitudes. Noémie Jean-Bourgeault wrote in the Mar/Apr 2014 edition of Faith Today, "You can’t come to a people saying Jesus saves and not take into account their religious heritage, their history, values and the collective wounds of the people. Our roots are very important."
Consider how the past is the present for Indigenous victims of cultural genocide. Same thing for the many children abused by priests at the Collège Notre Dame, the St-Alphonse Seminary and elsewhere.
Another key influence today is the nature of the Quiet Revolution. It wasn’t just a turn away from Duplessis and Catholicism, it was a turn toward a secularity largely opposed to Christian faith. Cultural critic Paul Malvern puts it this way. "One day Quebec was an adoring elder daughter of Rome. The next day it was an anti-Catholic nightmare crawling with militant secularists determined to erase every last vestige of the province’s religious past."
The secularism of the ’60s sowed the seeds for the strident dogmatism evident in Quebec’s new secularism law, which bans public workers from wearing religious symbols – veils, crosses and turbans, for example – while performing their duties.
Why the Quebec government passed Bill 21 this summer also has to do with immigration. Canadian immigration opened to non-Europeans in 1971. Previously Quebec’s religion had consisted of Catholicism with just a sprinkle of Indigenous traditions, Judaism, Islam and agnosticism. But in the last 50 years other faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and New Age are becoming increasingly visible.
Evangelicals are benefitting from this immigration surge, since it has also meant the arrival of mission-minded Christians from Africa and other continents. Everyday Sacred: Religion in Contemporary Quebec (Hillary Kaell, ed., McGill-Queen’s, 2017) notes the vibrancy of Pentecostal immigrants as they negotiate life in this new Quebec context.
But by far the most significant religious element shaping spiritual and political views today is Islam. Emma Anderson of the University of Ottawa argues that "Islam is the ghost of Catholicism past in contemporary Quebec," since both Rome and Mecca engender parallel concerns against authoritarian religion.
The first mosque in Quebec opened in 1971, but anxiety really surfaced with the rise of Islamic terrorism, in particular the 1999 arrest of millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam. He was recruited by al-Qaeda in Montreal. It rose exponentially with the worldwide panic created in 2001 by the September 11 attacks, which made Muslims everywhere the targets of hate, physical assault and even murder.
Acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam may seem like history to some of us, but they remain a present reality for others as we saw in the January 2017 killing by Alexandre Bissonnette of six Muslims at Quebec’s biggest mosque.
All of these – historical wounds, secularism, immigration, and anxiety about Islam – need to be understood by those who would share Jesus in this place and time.
James A. Beverley is a research professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.
FRANCE DICTATES ONLY FRENCH CATHOLICS WILL BE ALLOWED TO SETTLE IN THE NEW COLONY
A CENSUS SHOWS ABOUT 500 JEWS LIVING IN QUEBEC
ABOUT 10 MUSLIMS ARE SAID TO RESIDE IN QUEBEC
THE GOVERNMENT OF MAURICE DUPLESSIS AFFIXES A CRUCIFIX TO THE WALL OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
EDUCATION IS REMOVED FROM CONTROL OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
FOR AN EXTENSIVE TIMELINE
SEE ANDY RIGA, "RELIGION IN QUEBEC: THE BIGGER PICTURE" AND "THE TUMULTUOUS YEARS" (MONTREAL GAZETTE)