Canadian philosopher and author Charles Taylor spoke recently on diversity in a modern Quebec at the Newman Centre at McGill University. Taylor is professor emeritus at McGill University and the former Co-Chair with Gerard Bouchard of Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Reasonable Accommodation of Cultural Minorities. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission produced a detailed report in 2008 on accommodation of religion and cultural minorities in Quebec. Taylor spoke to a packed audience of faculty and students at the Newman Centre on the need for greater openness toward minorities as tensions flare once again over religious symbols in the workplace. Premier François Legault of Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) has vowed to limit immigration and prohibit teachers and other civil servants who wield authority from wearing a hijab, kippah, or turban.
The atmosphere has become so charged that the English Montreal School Board recently sent a letter to parents inviting them to attend a public meeting to discuss the CAQ’s proposed ban on teachers and staff wearing religious symbols in school, a move which could potentially also affect employees who wear a conspicuous crucifix or cross jewelry. Legault is promising to act swiftly and pass legislation that would bar public servants in positions of authority such as judges, police officers, prison guards, and teachers from wearing religious garb on the job. Taylor said that while the state must be secular in its functions – “in what it does” – this doesn’t justify taking away the religious freedom of individuals. “It is deeply insulting the way they go after that Muslim woman for wearing a hijab,” he said. Taylor made these comments in reference to what some see as a growing trend of intolerance towards Muslims.
Taylor highlighted modern disenchantment over identity as a root cause of rising conflicts between people of different cultures and religious backgrounds. In the past, he said, society was homogeneous affecting people’s worldviews and allegiances. The religious views of the Catholic Church and Protestant national churches “infiltrated the political theories” of European history. This contrasts markedly with today’s pluralistic realities which often collide with those cultural legacies. Taylor said we need to “unbundle” our concept of identity and belonging in the modern world. Today, people often have multiple identities he said, citing this example: One can say, “I am a Catholic, I belong to a meditation group, I am a doctor with Medecins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (Doctors Without Borders).”
This cosmopolitan view doesn’t necessarily sit well with the powers that be in erstwhile French Catholic Quebec. While the primacy of the French language is considered a linchpin of Quebecois identity Quebec’s Catholic roots still inform its identity and political discourse. A case in point concerns the crucifix in the National Assembly. Despite calls from the Mouvement laÃ¯que quebecois to remove it along with religious statues in public buildings the new government has flatly refused to do so, as did the Liberal Government before it. The CAQ said it has no intention of taking down the crucifix that hangs behind the Speaker’s chair in the legislature. “The crucifix, which has hung in the National Assembly since 1936, is part of our history. However, some would say that branding the crucifix as a symbol of national identity, minus respect for religious minorities is hypocritical.
Taylor now supports keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly in spite of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s earlier recommendation to remove it and put it in a museum. He says the crucifix is a symbol of “le Patrimoine” i.e. Quebec’s cultural heritage (much like the cross on Mount Royal). He doesn’t agree with the kind of “laÃ¯cite” of some secularists “who want to kick religious people out of the state.” Religious pluralism he noted, presents both challenges and opportunities. He acknowledged that the relationship between Christians and Muslims is complex, but with potential for meaningful exchange. “I feel a tremendous sense of something that is very rich for all of us,” he said. “It can help us get over the Crusades and Jihad.”
Feature image: Canadian philosopher and author Charles Taylor spoke recently on diversity in a modern Quebec at the Newman Centre at McGill University