Almost exactly five years ago, at the height of the first furor over the crucifix at the National Assembly, Catholic bishops of Quebec put out a statement to clarify how they felt about the issue.
If democratically elected MNAs decide to remove the crucifix from the halls of power, they said, they will respect that.
But the crucifix is most assuredly a religious symbol of the Catholic faith, the October 2013 statement continued — “not a museum artifact or just a souvenir of the past or part of our heritage.”
“It must be treated with all the respect due to a fundamental symbol of the Catholic faith,” wrote the Assemblée des évêques du Québec.
Fast forward to this week, and now it’s Premier-designate François Legault suggesting the crucifix in the National Assembly is part of our history — not a religious symbol.
As such, the Coalition Avenir Québec’s controversial policy on state secularism will apply to other people in positions of authority — teachers, judges and police — but not to politicians working in the aura of the crucifix in the National Assembly.
“In our past we had Protestants and Catholics,” Legault said Thursday. “They built the values we have in Quebec. We have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs.”
For Émilie Nicholas, the co-founder of Québec Inclusif, it’s “back to the future.”
“I don’t want to have these same arguments anymore. Maybe we should just boycott this conversation,” she said.
Five years ago, premier Pauline Marois’s Charter of Values dominated public debate, and created a sense of urgency that the right to freedom of religion — particularly the more visible, Muslim religion — would be trampled on, Nicholas said.
Nurses and teachers especially feared losing their jobs if they continued to wear the hijab. (In Quebec there were no police officers or judges wearing hijabs then, and there are none now.)
But Marois felt the crucifix, which has hung above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly since 1936, was part of our heritage, not a religion symbol.
She was defeated along with the Charter of Values in a snap election.
The CAQ has created that same sense of emergency today, Nicholas said, at least in Montreal, where an estimated 3,000 people turned out last Sunday to protest the incoming government’s intentions to forbid public sector workers from wearing religious symbols.
Legault has suggested he may allow those already on the job to keep wearing hijabs or kippahs or turbans. But he has also said he is ready to invoke the notwithstanding clause in order to bypass the Charter of Rights and push his legislation forward in the National Assembly — under the watchful gaze of Jesus on the cross.
“I grew up saying prayers at school in the morning,” Nicholas said. “But you don’t have to have a Catholic background to see that this is bogus.”
She said the whole discussion, on repeat, is forcing people to fight for the status quo, instead of moving forward on human rights issues and dealing with systemic racism and racial profiling, for instance.
But one thing that has changed in the five years between Marois’s Charter of Values and Legault’s secularism policy is how civil society is reacting.
Already, some school boards and CEGEPs have suggested they won’t enforce the policy on religious symbols, she said.
And Mayor Valérie Plante said she did not intend to take down the crucifix in city hall, or force city workers to stop wearing religious symbols.
As for the Catholic bishops, they haven’t changed their minds either.
“We thought we’d be at peace for a while, though we expected this discussion would resurface if the CAQ was elected,” said Germain Tremblay, the lay assistant to the secretary general of the Assemblée des évêques du Québec, and the organization’s spokesperson.
“Our position hasn’t changed. The crucifix for us is not just a heritage object — it’s a sacred religious object that should be in churches or residences for people of the Catholic faith. It’s a symbol of hope in the resurrection and to remind the faithful that there is life after death.”
Tremblay said it was Maurice Duplessis who placed the crucifix in the National Assembly to show the complicity between the church and the state. (Duplessis was very much against secularism.)
“Now in 2018, if Mr. Legault is waiting for the support of the Catholic church he will be disappointed… Politicians put the crucifix there, it’s up to politicians to decide what to do with it,” Tremblay said. “I think we have better things to discuss.”