“Laïcité” sounds like a straightforward, even desirable, concept—until you understand its hypocrisy and witness its very intentional consequences.
French culture is one of the wonders of the world. I can’t think of any other which can claim such mastery in every endeavor, from food and wine, to fashion, to literature, art and music, capped with the glory of a language whose very enunciation is the essence of suave sensuality.
English culture, all Anglo-Saxon grunts and thuds, a crude stew of best attempts, gets all shriveled-up shy in comparison (with the exception of the one area where we compete: the astonishing body of work and gift to humanity that is English lit).
And driving all this French mastery I discern a passion for perfection and precision, for nailing down the rules once and for all, an insistence about consistency. Not for the French that British-style mucking about, that roll-up-your-sleeves, in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound pluck, with the lashings of ginger beer and the hearty slaps on the back, our ridiculous cough and plough, dough and rough. Heavens, what a noise!
The French are not hobbyists; they’re not, like the British, a nation of amateurs, all on board with a bit of Scotch tape and a safety pin and that’s good enough. The French are not generally down with “good enough” and, given the superiority of the results, one might think this attitude completely justified. The French take their cultural achievements dead seriously, evidenced by the inviolable standards with which they ensure the survival and replication of every culinary or artistic or linguistic treasure.
These standards do not include the concept of “having a go.”
The French would not conceive of baking croissants at home—are you mad?—or of attempting five domestic courses of nouvelle cuisine. And I’m just guessing—you may slap me silly if I’m wrong—but I suspect the French countryside is fairly devoid of amateur theatre groups dedicated to homespun interpretations of verse drama by Racine and in definite want of local working men’s choirs giving Rameau operas their absolute best shot in a church basement.
Too much is at stake and what would be the point of puff pastry that fails to puff because you had a go, or a Larousse that admits any old upstart neologism just because everyone’s using it? All the more reason to exclude! Muddling through just for the fun of it is simply not a thing; making democratic exceptions is the thin end of the wedge.
Take the French Revolution, for example. They can’t just have a nice unruly protest, get some concessions, redistribute the wealth, hire back the useless aristocracy to run their former stately homes as care-taking staff and costumed tour guides, and then see how it plays out, adjusting the rules as needed. Oh, no.
The French are either/or thinkers, rigorous intellectuals, impatient to a fault, and once the aristocracy are brought low and thoroughly humiliated, the revolutionaries will substitute for the old order a new and perfect society—which just happens to be more rigid and intolerant than the one it replaced.
The last members of the ancien regime, including their innocent children; those clerics personifying the irrational tenets and hypocrisies of religion, down to the last cartload of nuns, must be processed, like so much filet mignon, with the razor-sharp logic of the guillotine. Reason, the letter of the law, admits no adjustments, no concept of mercy, no special pleading. Justice is pre-defined, the same for all, for in this philosophy, justice is equal treatment. Discretion would be special favor, and context is irrelevant.
I interpret it this way: The English Revolution came relatively early, in the Middle Ages, when the barons, for redress of grievances, authored and presented to the monarch a Magna Carta to establish the new ground rules for justice. From that tense stand off and uneasy concession flowed what would become English liberalism: a messy process aware of its own fallibility and suspicious of change for change’s sake, rituals that enforced slow deliberation, evolving out of the intuition that haste would rarely produce a just result.
The French Revolution came later, when the pressures of class and poverty, famine in the midst of tone-deaf extravagance, blew the bejeweled foundations of a rigid society sky-high. From intolerable circumstances emerged an intolerant reign of terror: impatient, enraged, absolute, demanding to see justice done, right now, and willing to accept anyone’s falling through the cracks as necessary collateral damage.
Society’s perfection is always a totalitarian goal, a fantasy populated with happy drones in the bureaucracy and rosy-cheeked peasants in the fields, all of whose memories have been wiped clean and replaced with the party line; a perfect society must cram many-faceted, multifarious human beings into an assembly line of identical, dutiful square pegs, and truth reverts to the scholastic’s format, the argument from authority: “Because I say so.”
The trains run on time, but you’ll never have permission to ride them.
Next up, the related concept of pure laine, “pure wool,” a phrase “both nationalist and religious” according to anthropologist Serge Bouchard. In 1855, Alfred Chalifoux, in charge of the local St-Jean-Baptiste Day procession, dressed the little boy representing the saint in sheepskin (was he also accompanied by an actual lamb? The history hints at this, but isn’t clear). The symbolism is obvious: Christ, the sacrificial lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world; “pure laine,” the imaginary direct blood lines of the original settlers miraculously glossing over the more pragmatic reality.
Pure laine thus reflected a belief on the part of Québec’s Catholic clergy—the real rulers of Québec society from its very beginnings in the 17th century right up until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s—that they had preserved a time capsule of a society forevermore like pre-revolutionary France, more Catholic, “more French than the French.”
The slight stumbling block to this delusion being the scarcity of suitable French women with which the original settlers might produce pure French offspring. Instead, they were obliged to branch out, as it were, and “choose” the handy, rough and ready alternatives: Inuit, Algonkian, Iroquois and Huron nations women. Their children were Métis, the term denoting a mix of white francophone and indigenous blood. The question of “who did the original French male settlers take as wives?” thus is a sticking point, as awkward as the question about who Cain and Abel beget their offspring upon.
But, Europe to the rescue! Starting in 1663, and for the following ten years, France sent to its new colony fresh contingents of suitable and authentic French (i.e., white) women, les Filles du Roi, daughters of the King. Lucky girls, one might think, to be honored with that name, for these were in fact orphans and widows, ranging in age from sixteen to about forty, culled from La Rochelle, Rouen, Paris, and financially sponsored by Louis XIV, shipped out to Nouvelle France as incentives for the male workers and soldiers no longer under contract to stay and populate the colony.
In other words, not to sugar-coat things, royally-sanctioned prostitutes or what we have called in similar circumstances “comfort girls”.
One wonders about the choice the women had in being selected for shipment thousands of miles across the ocean to an unknown wilderness, their destiny to be brood mares in the service of New France. One can easily deduce theirs was no choice at all; they were, after all, women without husbands or family, in other words, helpless unprotected non-persons in need of men to justify their existence.
These poor girls and women, then, became the maternal ancestors of who knows how many living descendants of today, self-identified as pure laine.
Thus has “pure laine,” with its racist and religious subtexts, stuck as “evidence” of these mythical unbroken bloodlines of the original French, a pathetic fantasy of racial purity that never existed. And if you’re starting to be troubled by this unseemly insistence on bloodlines and purity and its shameless implication of racial superiority—the only possible reason for insisting on it in the first place—you’re starting to see my point.
Fast forward to December of last year and Québec’s Bill 21,“An act concerning the laicity of the State”, which forbids any person to wear “religious symbols” who is employed by the government and/or is in a position of authority. This includes justices, members of the Assembly, police, firemen, and all manner of school employees, including, of course, teachers.
(As an interesting example of arrogance and overreach, the bill implies its jurisdiction over magistrates, but constitutional scholars say this is unenforceable due to the strict separation of powers between the legislative branch and the judiciary. There is simply no mechanism for enforcement, no special police task force that will storm court rooms and remove non-compliant justices.)
And so it came about that on December 3rd, 2021, Fatemeh Anvari, a teacher at Chelsea Elementary School in Québec, was informed that she could no longer teach her class. The reason for Fatemah’s removal? She wears a hijab.
Apparently the headscarf which she is perfectly free to wear on the street becomes, the second she enters a classroom, a toxic intrusion of religion into public life and an active influence on students.
In a letter to parents, school principal Andrea Gage stated, apparently without even a soupçon of irony, that
“Ms. Fatemeh will be moving into an alternate role in the school, one which will focus on a literacy project for all students and will target inclusion and awareness of diversity,” [adding,] “Ms. Fatemeh is a wonderful addition to our school and we are very pleased that she will support this initiative.”
Well. We’re just super glad she was given the opportunity!
The official line is that Québec is merely following its Napoleonic Code tradition of complete secularity, a real separation of church and state that the United States merely pays lip service to. And the ban, it says reasonably, applies to all religions, everyone equally.
This bland assurance is disingenuous, straight from the playbook of American racists, who, in one quite recent demonstration of pure systemic racism, wanted to keep one particular beach for whites only. But an out and out ban would have been unconstitutional. Instead, they reduced the height of an overpass so that the buses carrying Black day trippers along the road underneath—the only road to the beach—could no longer fit.
(Robert Moses was in charge of that project, by the way.)
For although a law may apply to all religions, not all religions require a visible symbol to be worn in public. That requirement is pretty much reserved for Muslim women, and so it is Muslim women pretty much exclusively who this law targets.
To claim that this is just the impartial result of applied, blind justice is a claim that should, and is intended to, insult anyone’s intelligence who has the temerity to think it through. It’s a smirking, bureaucratic “but what can we do?”, an unanswerable, infuriating, unfalsifiable “gotcha”.
As if anticipating an awkward question and accusations of hypocrisy, but instead piling insult upon insult, paragraph six of the “explanatory notes” states:
The bill may not be interpreted as affecting the emblematic or toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history…
Translation: Crucifixes in public places (including the prominent crucifix in place above the Speaker’s chair in the Québec National Assembly since 1936, only removed after much debate in 2019) are not religious symbols. They are expressions of Québec’s history only. Presumably this includes the huge cross prominently situated on the top of Mount Royal.
There has been zero outcry over the years about the “laïcité” of the state when it concerns such prominent Christian symbols; in fact polls suggest that most francophone Québecois want these symbols retained (a slight majority of anglophones are against them.) But by what reasoning do these unmistakeably religious objects, crosses and crucifixes, become mere artefacts and historical objects? If that’s all they are, put them in a museum.
Let’s at least respect each other enough to be honest about the ugliness of our aversions. What “the majority” of Québeckers object to is not a trifling lapse of secularity in a classroom, but the increasing racial diversity of their society. Put crudely, too many black and brown faces, visceral disgust at the spoiling of the perfect homogeneity of the population, the “more French, more Catholic, than the French,” the “pure laine”.
And this is the outcome: A well-liked young teacher removed from her class, missed by her pupils, who are sent the message that if you’re different, you’ll be punished for it. If you’re white and Christian / Catholic, you’re part of Québec’s heritage, the religiosity of your symbols is acceptable. If you’re an immigrant — as though the pure laine were not! — female and Muslim, you’re second-class and a threat.
Are these the lessons that Canada is teaching its children?
On one hand we settle more refugees than any other country, and I’m proud that we do this. Our values are of diversity and inclusion. We don’t use loyalty tests or examine people for “non-Canadian” attitudes, preferring to let the sponsors of the refugees gently introduce new Canadians to our way of life.
Yet Québec, so out of step with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms that it has had to exercise the “notwithstanding clause”* in order to effect Bill 21, applies a melting-pot standard to insist that diversity is unacceptable and inclusion is conditional; and that this standard works one way only.
All in all, a drearily familiar tale of white / Christian supremacy, gussied up in the language of neutrality, and a blatantly discriminatory law achieving not an “unfortunate” outcome, but exactly the outcome that was intended.
Québec receives staggering sums of equalization payments from the federal government; in fact, routinely, the largest amounts of any “have-not” province.
And by the way, I’m not saying that the province doesn’t merit these payments – far better and more expert minds than mine have used the standard formula and decided that this is what is needed to achieve equality of opportunity, and I’m 100% fine with that.
But with entitlements come responsibilities. Bluntly put, why should Québec get the keys to the car when it doesn’t obey the rules of the road? Why should it receive payments with no conditions and continue to do so when it flouts the core values of our confederation?
We make federal health-care transfer payments to the provinces contingent on adherence to the five pillars of the Canada Health Act.
Why could we not make equalization payments contingent on upholding core Canadian values of inclusion, tolerance and diversity?
It’s a serious question. Given the urgency of the situation and the egregiousness of the violation, most Canadians look to our Prime Minister for guidance,
and have every right to expect a timely answer.
Notwithstanding clause: Section 33 of the Charter states:
Section 33.(1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15.(2) An Act or a provision of an Act in respect of which a declaration made under this section is in effect shall have such operation as it would have but for the provision of this Charter referred to in the declaration.(3) A declaration made under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect five years after it comes into force or on such earlier date as may be specified in the declaration.(4) Parliament or the legislature of a province may re-enact a declaration made under subsection (1).(5) Subsection (3) applies in respect of a re-enactment made under subsection (4).
What this means:
The Parliament of Canada, a provincial legislature or a territorial legislature may declare that one of its laws or part of a law applies temporarily (“notwithstanding”) countermanding sections of the Charter, thereby nullifying any judicial review by overriding the Charter protections for a limited period of time. This is done by including a section in the law clearly specifying which rights have been overridden. A simple majority vote in any of Canada’s 14 jurisdictions may suspend the core rights of the Charter. However, the rights to be overridden must be either a “fundamental right” guaranteed by Section 2 (such as freedom of expression, religion, and association), a “legal right” guaranteed by Sections 7–14 (such as rights to liberty and freedom from search and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment) or a Section 15 “equality right”. Other rights such as section 6 mobility rights, democratic rights, and language rights are inviolable.