Faith, culture, identity: setting a new stage

Montréal student climate protest, March 15, 2019 – Photo © AJ Korkidakis


Montréal student climate protest, March 15, 2019 – Photo © AJ Korkidakis


Veteran war correspondent, Robert Fisk, speaking to a packed house at St. James United Church in Montréal in 2015, reflected on ISIS and the colonial history that has fomented justifiable resentment across much of the Middle East and continues to underlie ongoing conflicts.  He pointed to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the British and French colonial powers secretly agreed to divvy up much of the Middle East between them.

For the past 40 years, Fisk has been investigating and reporting on the forces setting (and unsettling) the world stage. He has been steadfast in recalling history, exposing the underlying interests at play, showing deep respect for all communities of people and speaking his truths as a human being who for much of his life has witnessed the ravages of war. His comments about faith and loss of faith continue to resonate:

“[…] as a civilization in the West we have lost our faith. The irony is that we who have lost our faith have the power to impose ourselves upon people who have not lost it, while people who’ve kept faith do not have the physical, military, or political power to defend themselves.” (Robert Fisk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley)

One hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, the dislocation of the world’s population has now reached unprecedented proportions, and we would be hard pressed to find a small pocket of humanity or nature left unscathed by the traumas of colonialism and the successive iterations of capitalism that have pushed our planet to the brink.

Nothing sacred, no planet B

On Friday, March 15, 2019, two events unfolded that have a bearing on our theme. One was the culmination of ever-broadening student strikes (#FridayforFuture) rallying young people around the world, calling for crisis intervention to save the planet. In Québec alone, more than 150,000 young people occupied the streets of Montréal and Québec City.[i] The other was the murder of 50 Muslim worshippers at the Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a young white Australian man driven by white supremacist ideology and hatred. That calculated massacre was perpetrated at the same time as young New Zealand students swelled the streets of Christchurch, marching to sustain life on earth.

Québec and New Zealand now share a grim history of Islamophobic shootings. Both have white supremacist groups whose ideologies are touted by right-wing populist politicians. But in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown real political will to close ranks in solidarity with the grieving Muslim community, fight Islamophobia, take strong gun control action, and set a new stage. In Québec, the response was all over the map: an initial outpouring of public shock, grief and expressions of support for the victims and their families, followed by a return to what journalist Allison Hanes describes as “business as usual when it comes to Muslim bashing, casual hate and unrepentant ignorance.”[ii]

Thinly veiled Islamophobia

The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has just tabled its bill, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which claims to be based on the following four principles: “the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.” To clinch the government’s own appearance of religious neutrality, the day before it tabled this legislation the CAQ government whipped its members into line to pass a resolution to remove the crucifix from the National Assembly (Québec’s parliament) – after a heated debate in which the vast majority of the party’s members argued to keep it as a part of Québec’s “heritage.”[iii] Doublespeak and double standards abound.

Bill 21 prohibits public employees in teaching and various positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols.” While these symbols are not defined in the bill, the main targets are women who wear a hijab or other religious or traditional head coverings, and anyone wearing a kippah or turban. For the sake of appearance, conspicuous crosses aren’t considered kosher either, although tattoos of a cross would be allowed. It also bans anyone wearing a niqab, burka or other religious face covering from receiving or providing public services. To ward off legal challenges, given that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are enshrined in the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter, the CAQ government has chosen to override these sections of both charters, using their “notwithstanding” clauses.

Over our dead bodies

It was no coincidence that the first international charter of rights, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was proclaimed in 1948 in the wake of World War II.[iv] Article 18 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

As pointed out by the CSN labour confederation, “the rights and freedoms guaranteed by these charters are founded on the 6 million people who died during that war because of their ethnicity, and all the others killed because of their political convictions, their union activities, their handicap, or their sexual orientation.”[v] (Our translation)

Montréal freelance writer Idil Issa, a Muslim woman of colour who began wearing a hijab in her mid-twenties as an expression of her developing spirituality, looks further back in history for the roots of our human rights charters:

“The current Coalition Avenir Québec government, led by Premier François Legault, seems dangerously unaware of context and history in its plan to bring in legislation banning religious symbols for teachers, police officers and other government workers deemed to be in positions of authority. […] But this isn’t the first time that people of various religious confessions have had their belonging questioned, their accession to government posts limited, and the expression of their faith severely restricted. A quintessential example is medieval Spain. After the fall of the Andalusian empire, Jews and Muslims, who had once established an intellectually fruitful convivensia, had to submit to the will of the victor, no longer able to publicly express their faith. It was precisely measures like these undertaken by ruling powers in Europe, driving people with various religious confessions underground for centuries, that contributed to the establishment of the principle of freedom of conscience, a hallmark of modern democracies.”[vi]

The CAQ didn’t even entertain the possibility of a more open, pluralistic model of secularism.[vii] It opted for the hardline version inspired by France, stamped with all the prejudices, fears and arrogance of a former colonial (and once Catholic) power that dominated and exploited much of North Africa not so long ago.  And while the term laïcité is a concept rooted in the French revolution, its current application targeting religious Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews has nothing to do with Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In fact, the ugly debate in Québec that has been sowing division and fear for more than a decade is based not on any urgent problem that needs to be addressed – such as, say, the imminent takeover of government and schools by mullahs ready to impose Sharia law. It is based on fears of being overwhelmed by the Other, and of a weakening of the core values that have evolved in Québec. Twelve years ago, those fears drove the small town of Hérouxville in central Québec to adopt a code of values warning immigrants that “we” don’t stone or burn women here.[viii] The fact that there were no immigrants in Hérouxville only amplified the fear. Lack of familiarity can breed contempt.

A dangerous tempest in a teapot

According to a number of specialists, the current charters of human rights and freedoms and the evolution of case law in Québec and Canada already guarantee the secularism (or laicity) of the State and public institutions, de facto and de jure (in fact and in case law). According to the Bouchard-Taylor Report, further measures could be applied to ensure greater neutrality of the State, such as by putting an end to implicit identification of the State with a religion. For example, by terminating the practice of saying an opening prayer before a municipal council session, removing the crucifix above the chair of the National Assembly, ending tax avoidance measures given to certain religious organizations, and cutting off public funding for confessional schools.

While the State and its institutions have an obligation of religious neutrality, the Bouchard-Taylor Report points out that their employees are not individually bound by that obligation but are required to show impartiality and reserve in performing their duties, and to refrain from proselytizing.[ix]


Montréal Women’s March, January 19, 2019 – Photo © Jody Freeman


Respect for women and the right to work

The disconnect between public rhetoric and action to ensure equality for women, the right to decent work and pay, and measures to end poverty and violence against women has long been evident, especially to Indigenous women and other women of colour. And with the volatile ingredients of faith, identity and culture thrown into the mix, the debates around secularism are ripping the veil off the paternalism underlying the attitudes of a number of Québec figures who claim to be fighting for equality.

Journalist Allison Hanes steps into the fray:

“Who is oppressed and who is the oppressor? In the eyes of Quebec’s new minister for the status of women, the answer appears to be black and white. Isabelle Charest said Tuesday that she sees the hijab as a sign of oppression. She ‘clarified’ Wednesday that her opinion extends to any religion that prescribes a dress code.

‘For me, this is not freedom of choice. When someone doesn’t have freedom of choice, for me it’s a sign of oppression,’ she said. ‘I told you the hijab does not correspond to my values. My values are that a woman should be free to wear what she wants to wear or not wear.’

But who is oppressed and who is the oppressor when a minister whose job it is to promote equality singles out, stigmatizes and sets apart a particular subset of women?

Muslim women unfortunately seem to bear the brunt of the radical secularism that has emerged from Quebec’s deep historical ambivalence toward religion, though Jews, Sikhs and Christians may end up as collateral damage.”[x]

Hanes tears a strip off the brand of paternalistic feminism that “is unfortunately being wielded as a weapon to keep some women down rather than lift everyone up.” The minister for the status of (some) women “only succeeds in insulting all women (and people) of faith by insinuating they can’t think for themselves, aren’t exercising their own free will, and may be complicit in their own oppression.”

Reading Allison Hanes makes me think of Mohammed Ali. She doesn’t mince words and she doesn’t miss a beat:

“It sure doesn’t seem like Charest plans to do much for any of the women in Quebec who may soon find themselves ousted from their classrooms on the basis of how they dress.

The oppression of women persists in Quebec and comes in many forms. It can be found in troubling rates of domestic violence, in the poverty rate, in the glass ceilings, double standards and sexual harassment that still plague women on the job. It can be seen in a culture where women are judged on their appearance, held to impossible standards, objectified, marginalized or denied a voice. And it can be seen in a policy that sets out to strip women in hijab of all vestiges of authority.

If Muslim women are oppressed in Quebec, it seems to have less to do with their religion and more to do with a lack of respect from their government.”[xi]

It’s up to us to step up and speak out, and there’s no time to lose. The students who are fighting for our planet are setting a new stage of their own making, hopefully one that will be based on genuine solidarity and mutual respect.


Montréal Women’s March, January 19, 2019 – Photo © Jody Freeman


In this issue, food for heart, mind and soul:

  • Sharon Bourke’s landmark essay on “People Power, Identity Politics and Open Books”
  • Martine Eloy’s piece on systemic racism
  • Artwork by Élizabeth Gélinas in “Un dépouillement eloquent”
  • Rana Bose in “Making Khichdi or Hodgepodge Out of Identity and Class”
  • Marie-Josée Tremblay’s multi-layered reflections on being Métis, “Ni autochtone ni blanche”
  • Antoine Bustros’ animist tale, “Les patineurs”
  • Maya Khankhoje’s review of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
  • Paul Serralheiro’s review, “Charlotte Hussey: Reclaiming Narratives in Glossing the Spoils”
  • Maya Khankhoje’s review of Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Special thanks to Muriel Beaudet, Louise Dawson and Chantal Mantha for generously offering their copyediting skills in French.



[ii] Allison Hanes, Montreal Gazette, March 26, 2019

[iii] Denis Lessard, LA PRESSE, « Les coulisses du chemin de la croix » , le 30 mars, 2019.

[iv] The principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a Montrealer originally from New Brunswick, John Peters Humphrey.

[v] Confédération des syndicats nationaux, « La Laïcité de l’État », adopted by the Confederal Council on December 12-13, 2018. This reference on p. 10 cited Wikipédia as its source on human casualties during the Second World War.

[vi] Idil Issa, “Opinion: CAQ government fosters exclusion and malaise,” Special to Montreal Gazette, originally published February 12, 2019.

[vii]; see also the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, « La Laïcité de l’État »,  p.  11.

[viii] Jonathan Montpetit, CBC, “What we can learn from l’Hérouxville…”, January 25, 2017.

[ix] This section is drawn from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux’s document, « La Laïcité de l’État », p. 11, which cites the Bouchard-Taylor Report : Gérard Bouchard et Charles Taylor, Fonder l’avenir : le temps de la conciliation (version abrégée).

[x] Allison Hanes, “Quebec’s minister for the status of (some) women,” February 6, 2019.

[xi] Ibid.




Jody Freeman is a member of our editorial team.