Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Bill 21 and Quebec's Secular Government

Please register to receive free alerts on new postings of articles.
Send an email with the word "subscribe" to:


Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019
Bill 21: An Answer to Those who Have Criticized Quebec’s Secular Government*
Dr. Rodrigue Tremblay, emeritus professor at the Université de Montréal and a former minister in the Quebec government**

Secularism in the Christian world was an attempt to resolve the long and destructive struggle of Church and State. Separation, adopted in the American and French Revolutions and elsewhere after that, was designed to prevent two things: the use of religion by the state to reinforce and extend its authority; and the use of the state power by the clergy to impose their doctrines and rules on others.“ Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), British-American historian at Princeton University, (in 2003)

Recently, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister publicly criticized the Quebec government's secularism law, Bill 21.

Would it be possible to suggest to Mr. Pallister to stop making political capital on the backs of Quebec and tell him that his time would be better spent if he cared a little more about the fate of his province’s Métis population. We could also remind him that his province has no lessons to give Quebec about human rights, when we know that Manitoba suspended the rights of francophones to have French schools in 1890 and 1896.

Quebec is not a province like the others

Quebec is one of the founding provinces of the Canadian Confederation of 1867, and it is the only one with a French-speaking majority. Moreover, it is the only province to have had, for the last several centuries, linguistic and judicial rights which are different from most English-speaking provinces.

It should not be forgotten also that English-speaking provinces are under the British Common Law legal system, while Quebec is under the French Civil and property Code. Also, let us keep in mind that Quebec obtained an amendment to the Canadian constitutional law, in 1998, through which the Quebec government set up linguistic, thus secular, school boards to replace denominational school boards.
The separation of Church and State is a fundamental democratic principle in the French tradition. In the Common Law, because the Queen or King of the United Kingdom is also the head of the Anglican Church, this democratic principle of separating politics from religion is less prevalent.

Canada: A democracy—or a constitutional monarchy!

Regarding the issue of the separation of Church and State, it could be argued that the French approach is more democratic and more modern than the archaic British system, which preserves the monarchy as the depository of political power. That principle rests on the obsolete idea that political power does not belong to the people, but rather to an abstract deity. Therefore, is it Quebec—whose system of French civil law goes back to the Quebec Act of 1774—that is lacking in terms of democracy, or is it not rather English Canada, which still insists on keeping a foreign royalty as Head of State, (in addition to having an unelected Senate)?

Indeed, compared to other countries in the Western world, Canada may seem somewhat less democratic. For instance, the Constitutional Act of 1982 has never been submitted for adoption to the people, through a referendum. It was rather the making of a handful of politicians, temporarily in office, and it refers only to the Anglo-Canadian conception of individual rights, to the detriment of collective rights—besides having been imposed on the Quebec population with no input whatsoever from its government and its Parliament.

In the final analysis, Canada is essentially a constitutional monarchy where the ultimate authority rests with a queen or a king, whose power in turn rests on “the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. In 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau enshrined in the Preamble of the constitution, imposed on Quebec and without a referendum, that political power in Canada comes ultimately from ‘God’ and his representative on Earth, the British royalty.

Indeed, many in Canada are unaware that the Queen, as the final authority in Canada, not only consults with the Canadian government, but can also consult, in a time of crisis, with the Queen's Privy Council. This is an organization that is composed of present and past cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices and other present or past dignitaries. Its function is to advise the Queen or her representative, the Governor General, who is also not elected and who is not directly beholden to the people.

That sounds awfully archaic. —Who is backward here? Quebec with its secular democratic government that respects the beliefs of all, or the idea that the rest of Canada adheres to, that political power rests with a monarch whose advice can come from unelected officials?

Secularism is a guarantee of democracy and freedom for all

Secularism in the modern state is a great democratic value. It puts all citizens on the same footing. It guarantees that believers and non-believers have the same right to freedom of expression of their convictions. It also ensures the right to have, or not to have, a religion, to change religions or to no longer have one at all.

Most European countries, whether or not members of the European Union, have laws similar to that of Quebec’s, in order to proclaim a secular state and its neutrality towards the beliefs of everyone. This is guaranteed by the principle of the separation of Church and State, and the secularism of the State in its daily dealings with citizens.

1. In France, for example, the "1905 law" guarantees the separation between Church and State.
2. In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution of 1787 proclaims the separation of Church and State and guarantees freedom of worship.
3. In Italy, Catholicism has not been a state religion since 1948 according to the Constitution, even though the country is largely Catholic.
4. In Portugal, the Constitution states that the state is secular.
5. In Spain, since the 1978 Constitution and the abrogation of Catholicism as the official religion, the country is a secular state separated from the Church.
6. In Switzerland, the separation of church and state has existed, at the federal level, since 1848, although some cantons may grant public law status to certain cults. Etc.

Propaganda against Quebec must stop

All of this is to say that there is an insidious propaganda, essentially launched by some Toronto media and some politicians, against Quebec and the Quebec government, concerning the secularism of the Quebec state. On the forefront has been The Globe and Mail, an anti-francophone newspaper since the time of its founder, George Brown, and the National Post (see the Globe and Mail editorial of October 28, 2019, and an article by Chris Selley in the National Post of November 6, 2019).

In fact, the Quebec government's secularism law is very moderate and it applies to everyone, regardless of beliefs or convictions.

Bill 21 respects acquired rights and its principles apply to everyone. The ban on wearing religious symbols applies only to state employees in a position of authority (judges, police officers, teachers), who are in direct contact with users. The latter have an inalienable right not to be subjected to political or religious propaganda by state employees in a monopoly position, when they receive public services. A very large majority of the Quebec population supports this democratic law. Many in English Canada also support it, but the media do not mention it.

There would be many other things to say, but the above illustrates how some English-language media are misinformed, and some are possibly in bad faith, on the question of the separation of Church and State in Quebec. Quebec is the only French-majority society in North America, and it has an inalienable right to take necessary measures to survive.

More fundamentally, some in Toronto should abandon the idea of making Quebec into a colony of English Canada. They should also consider whether it is such a good idea to transform Canada into a carbon copy of the United States!

* Translation of an article published in the Montreal newspaper La Presse, Nov. 6, 2019.
** Author of the book ‘La régression tranquille du Québec, 1980-2018’, (Éditions Fides), recipient of the Richard-Arès Prize, 2018.