The recent appointment by Justin Trudeau of Amira Elghwaby as a “special representative” to combat “Islamophobia” has highlighted two conceptions of the place of religion in society. If our friends in English Canada cared a little about our history, they would easily understand why Quebecers do not want to see religion so close to State Affairs.
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We must first go back to the Protestant reformation in England in the 16th century. Henry VIII became the head of the Anglican Church.
In the following decades, England persecuted other Protestant denominations, especially the Puritans.
Amira Elghawaby and Justin Trudeau
The discrimination against Catholicism lasted much longer. Even today, a Catholic cannot ascend the throne.
This experience gave rise to the idea, still strong in English Canada, that religions should be protected from the state. Anglo-Saxon secularism was therefore limited to separating church and state; one did not interfere with the other.
The French Revolution
France had a different path. Until the revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church was the state religion and enjoyed a great deal of control over the population. The revolution was largely against the church, accused of having abused the people.
La laïcité was then established during the 19 th and 20 th centuries. It does not only want to separate the church from the state.
Quebecers had a duty to attend numerously in religious ceremonies, as you can guess from this photo taken back then in the crypt of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.
It aims at preserving the state from religious influence. It also seeks to protect people from religion, which is seen as an ideology among others.
As in France, the church had a great influence in Quebec, but until a much more recent period. It began with the conquest of 1760. Unlike the rest of the elite, the clergy did not return to France. They stayed here and collaborated with the British. Their role and influence were particularly important from 1840 to 1960.
The education of young Quebecers has long been entrusted to the clergy, as depicts this photo taken in what was then called a “classical college” of the North Coast Region, around 1945.
For example, the clergy influenced political life. They also controlled education and social services. Quebecers were constantly pressured to follow the precepts of Catholicism. To take an example from my family history, my maternal grandmother in the 1950s was refused absolution by her parish priest, which upset her. She confessed that after ten children and a few miscarriages, she refused to do her marital duty.
The Quiet Revolution
This whole situation changed in the 1960s. In a much less dramatic way than the French Revolution, the Quiet Revolution was also directed against the church. It started to be perceived as an institution that had kept Quebecers in obscurantism.
Students in a Quebec school in the 1940s with a religious teacher.
As religious practice declined, the government reduced the role of religion. For example, the Ministry of Education was created in 1964 and lay people replaced religious teachers. In 1997, Quebec abolished denominational school boards following a constitutional amendment (which Ontario never did). In 2000, religious education was also abolished and in 2019 bill 21 was enacted.
We are not intolerant
Quebecers have thus managed to emancipate themselves from religion , something seen as an important legacy of the Quiet Revolution. They are not intolerant.
For them religion is a private matter. Society does not have to accommodate groups that wish to reintroduce it into the public sphere.
English Canadians would benefit from a better understanding of our history.
They would then appreciate why Amira Elghawaby's appointment is so unacceptable to us.