Canada champions tolerance abroad. But what about chez nous in Quebec?

Charles Taylor asks what motivates practices of exclusion on the basis of religious identity and expression. Dominic Burbidge reports.

All of what brings us together can be the basis for exclusion.

This is how renowned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor began his address to students at the University of Oxford, taking as the source of his thoughts the recent divide in Quebec over a proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which set out to ban the wearing of religious symbols amongst state employees. After being introduced in 2013 by the governing Parti Québécois, the bill failed when 2014 elections were won by the Quebec Liberal Party opposed to the legislation.

Taylor, who co-chaired the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation to evaluate cultural differences in Quebec, attempted to delve into the Québécois mind as a case study for interpreting opposition to foreigners and their religious expression in contemporary western democracies. The battle that raged in Quebec between 2013 and 2014 provided Taylor with ample evidence for the tensions at play in social diversity. Where does the sentiment of exclusion come from and what can be done about it?

One of the least recognised and yet most important pieces to this puzzle, Taylor remarked, is that you need trust. Rather than trusting, we find newcomers uncomfortable and upsetting. Though we go through the motions of political correctness, we resist change and erect policies that harden the identities of newcomers to keep them framed as outsiders. The Quebec Charter of Values—originally named Charte de la Laïcité—was one such example, professing neutral application of the rule of law whilst proposing something all knew would affect one person more than others: the female Muslim who wears a headscarf.

These invented criteria for public acceptance are, if all goes to plan, impossible to pass. Or, if newcomers do jump the hoop, they show themselves opportunistic in the process. This is because those who represent the established majority, Taylor argues, are themselves neither religious nor atheist; they are ex-confessional. Whilst you can become a Catholic with enough instruction and prayer, you can’t become an ex-Catholic no matter how hard you try. The baby-boom generation has lost many of its connections to established religions, but not all. They still harbour the cultural and philosophical meanings embedded in these upbringings and feel that severing completely is too much to stomach. Neither religiously orthodox nor militantly secularist, theirs is a distant spirituality impossible to assimilate.

For Taylor, the ultimate irony of the position lies in how the crucifix of the National Assembly of Quebec was exempted from being removed under the Quebec Charter of Values on the spurious grounds that it was not a religious symbol but of historical and cultural interest (despite the Catholic Church repeatedly challenging this interpretation). At base, this is coding some things as acceptable and others as unacceptable, without a good reason for doing so. The practice vilifies minority groups and, in turn, entrenches identities.

A day before Taylor’s address, Canadian Ambassador Andrew Bennett visited students to discuss his portfolio under the newly created Office of Religious Freedom. His remit is to “promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad”, so as to “protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat”. Is this a satisfactory coding? When asked by the author why he had insisted on describing Canada as a “champion of pluralism in its most positive sense”, the Ambassador replied that the concept of pluralism sometimes “gets distorted” and used to “diminish a common, national identity”. If so, is it really a way of describing a nation’s values?

Is there anything that can bring us together without acting as a basis for exclusion? George Orwell remarked in August 1944: “it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them ‘Huns’.” If we are ever going to accept the Hun, surely it is because the Hun can share something with us?

Taylor’s answer is no. “The correct coding is illusionary,” is what he answered Free Speech Debate Director Timothy Garton Ash when asked what framing is best. And this fits with Taylor’s general approach, an approach that can be admired and feared at the same time.

Critics of right-wing opposition to immigration often maintain that the defining features of a nation are ever-shifting. Instead, societies should aim to perfect the art of permanent resistance to orthodoxies – whether those orthodoxies come in religious or secular forms. This meets with Taylor’s own background in Hegelian philosophy, which takes history as more a process than a journey to a definite end point. But continental philosophy’s euphoria on the perfection of not-knowing does little for those citizens who seek meaning in their day-to-day life. Religions involve learning about and practicing the meaning of life, whereas the constant fight against a nation’s coding is a deeper insistence that there is no meaning to society. A political community that specialises in the expression of no common meaning becomes, therefore, the established opponent to those citizens’ search for meaning.

Better we let these religions be, and ask ourselves if there really is something in them that threatens the state’s existence, or whether these debates are instead about ex-religious elites searching for what brings themselves together.

Dominic Burbidge is associate editor of Free Speech Debate.

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