We publish here an English translation of an article written by La Riposte socialiste activist Hélène Bissonnette on a debate occurring within Quebec solidaire. The CAQ government is attacking religious minorities and the leadership of QS has taken a compromise position. Party activists are mobilizing against the compromise position taken by the party leaders. This debate will be settled at QS’s National Council meeting in late March.

The election of the CAQ on Oct. 1 sent shockwaves throughout Québec. The government immediately went to work, making it a priority to settle the so-called “problem” of secularism. Quebec Premier François Legault had already announced his intention to ban state employees in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. This includes judges, prison guards, police officers, and also teachers. The CAQ has also previously announced that they will ban state employees from wearing the chador. But this so-called debate has nothing to do with secularism. Secularism is being used as a cover to attack religious minorities.

However, so far, there has been no clear opposition to the CAQ’s propositions from Québec solidaire, the only left wing party in the province. The party leadership has instead adopted a “compromise” position based on the Bouchard-Taylor Commission recommendations, which proposes banning religious symbols for state employees in positions of authority, excluding teachers.

Secularism in Québec

The question of secularism has played an important role in the history of Quebec. Before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the state and the Catholic Church worked hand-in-hand. For example, education and health care were provided by priests and nuns, and religious sermons were used to herd lost sheep back into the fold of the reactionary Union Nationale party. The urban petty bourgeoisie, suffocated by the considerable backwardness of Québec compared with other advanced capitalist countries, led a progressive struggle for the separation of the church and state.

The memory of this struggle is burned into the consciousness of many Quebeckers. It is therefore not surprising that the right wing has gained popularity by using this question. But is there really a secularism problem in Québec? In some respects, one could say that the complete separation of church and state was never accomplished in Québec. In 2014, out of the 174 schools subsidized by the state, there are 80 religious schools which received a total of $106 million. These schools are overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant. Furthermore, there are 1,636 religious organizations in Québec which benefit from tax exemption status. The crucifix remains in the National Assembly. It was actually the reactionary despot, Maurice Duplessis, who installed it there during the Great Darkness period, to signify the union of the church and state. However, every time the question of secularism is brought up by the PQ, the PLQ, or the CAQ, hypocritically, none of this is ever questioned. The CAQ attempts to justify the fact that they wish to keep the crucifix in the National Assembly. Legault says that the crucifix “is a part of our heritage”. CAQ Member of the National Assembly Sonia LeBel added that, “our history, whether one likes it or not, is founded on the Catholic religion. Religious symbols are there because they are symbols of our history. We do not have a Muslim past.” It seems, then, that the need for secularism in Quebec institutions will not include banning Catholic symbols.

When we listen to speeches from the identitarian nationalists, one might think that sharia law is in the process of being instituted in Québec! If this were true, this would be a genuine threat to the secularism of the Quebec state. It is however always important to put things in perspective. According to Statistics Canada, there are around 250,000 Muslims in Québec (about 3.1 per cent of the population), of which 115 000 are women. Even though these figures can be difficult to find, Frédéric Castel, religiologist, historian, and geographer at UQAM, estimates that only about 10 per cent of these women wear the hijab, and only a handful (between 50 and 100) wear the niqab. This is not a significant portion of the population in Quebec.

While it seems that there is a consensus among the political parties on this question, there is no evidence that public sector workers who wear conspicuous religious symbols constitute a concrete threat to secularism. The supporters of this so-called debate have never presented a single statistic, study, or proof in support of their claims. Not only do they fail to mention that it is a miniscule number of women who wear religious veils in the province, but they also do not provide any examples of state employees proselytising. This was confirmed by the the president of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (a union representing close to 36,000 teachers). The union is opposed to the CAQ’s bill, as vice president Nathalie Morel made obvious in recent comments: “Is there a case where we can say that there was a teacher in Quebec who tried to convince children of their religious faith? To our knowledge, there are none. For us, this is really a non-issue.”

Why, then, is this question constantly being rehashed by the major political parties? After a lull for a couple of decades, the class struggle has slowly but surely made a comeback in Quebec. We have seen more and more movements of workers and youth. In this context, the debate on “reasonable accommodation” regarding the wearing of religious symbols in the public sector has become the question of choice to divide the population. The healthy secular sentiment of the Québécois population is being instrumentalized and used to target Muslims in particular.

When we look at the statistics, we can see that the number of requests for reasonable accommodation for religious reasons is insignificant in Québec. Between April 2015 and March 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal received less than 20 requests, and only one concerned the wearing of the veil, and this number has not really increased since then. It is difficult to see where there is a problem or any real threat. Therefore, we must avoid the trap that has been set for us to believe there is really a problem regarding secularism in Quebec. We must reject the terms of this debate. The discriminatory measures proposed by the CAQ have nothing in common with the heroic fight of the 1960s against the domination of the Catholic Church. The issue of religious symbols in the public sector has been set up by the politicians. They have sowed the seeds of this racist identitarian discussion in order to divide the workers and turn their attention away from the austerity measures imposed on us.

While Legault has been hammering away on the urgent need to immediately solve this question, it is not surprising that he has recently announced that his secularism bill will be pushed back to the spring of 2019. The endless debate will continue and act as a cover for the coming cuts and attacks by the government against the working class.

Québec solidaire leadership plays the CAQ’s game

On the question of religious symbols, the leadership of Québec solidaire has, for several years, proposed a “compromise” based on the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, which proposes to ban religious symbols only for state employees in positions of authority, excluding teachers. This is meant to be a middle ground between those who are against any ban, and those who want a complete ban for all state employees.

To justify this position, there is one number that is constantly used in the ranks of the party: 76 per cent of the population in Quebec are in favour of banning religious symbols for state employees in positions of authority. How can we go against the wishes of three-quarters of the population, they ask? But therein lies the problem. If this racist rhetoric perpetuated by the right has succeeded in gaining ground among the population and has allowed the the CAQ to gain in popularity, this is not because the Québécois are particularly racist. One of the most important reasons for the success of this reactionary discourse is the near-complete absence of counter-arguments on this issue. In reality, the position defended by the QS leadership only allows this xenophobic debate to continue without any real opposition.

In a recent interview, QS co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was incapable of defending this position. When he was asked by the interviewer if he was ready to go into a classroom and tell young people wearing the hijab or the kippa that they could never become police officers, judges, or prosecutors, he backslid and admitted that “these discussions are difficult” and that QS’s position “is not perfect”.

This constant search for a compromise at all costs is also useless, even from a purely parliamentarian point of view. The CAQ has just been elected with a strong majority government, so why should QS compromise? The CAQ doesn’t need QS votes to pass their law. There also no reason to believe that the CAQ will stop attacking religious minorities once they adopt this discriminatory law. The “compromise” from QS only gives legitimacy to this racist discourse without getting anything in return. QS co-spokesperson Manon Massé recently gave the impression of wanting to pardon Legault by saying, “I do not think that Mr. Legault is a racist man and I do not think that the CAQ is racist.” This declaration was made just two days before the big demonstration against racism on October 7 where neither Manon Massé or Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois were present.

This position in the current debate is ultimately a reflection of the tangent taken by the party leadership in 2013. In the wake of the debate on the charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois, former QS spokesperson Françoise David brought this debate into the party, which led to the party leadership presenting an alternative charter which was only a watered down version of the PQ’s charter.

We have seen the effects of this opportunist turn last year, when the Liberals of Philippe Couillard proposed their Bill 62 on the “religious neutrality of the state”. Quebec solidaire then missed a golden opportunity to denounce the hypocrisy of the Liberals, who wanted to play the racist card in an attempt to woo voters who were fleeing to the CAQ. The QS leaders objected to the law, which sought to force women to remove their veils even in public transportation, only due to its inapplicability. They failed to criticize the Islamophobic character of this law, but instead focused their energies on criticizing the fact that the law did not attack the crucifix in the National Assembly.

No genuine opposition to the racist propositions of the PQ, the PLQ, or the CAQ has been presented by the party leadership over the past few years. Françoise David said that she wanted to “advance the discussion.” She wanted to put “water in her wine” to reach an alternative to the PQ’s charter. She said that “it is time to put an end to this debate.” Five years later, it is clear that this strategy of compromise has not worked to put an end to this debate!

The feminist dilemma

One would have to be blind to not see that at the heart of this debate is the question of the Islamic veil. This question of banning religious symbols has a disproportionate impact on Muslim women. “Every time they start talking about Muslim women in the media, we have problems on the street,” says Bouchera Chelbi, a primary school teacher in Montreal.

This question has even created divisions among feminists. Most notably, the Quebec Federation of Women (Fédération des femmes du Québec), has so far been unable to take a stand on the subject. For some, any prohibition of religious symbols is a particularly discriminatory measure against Muslim women. However, for others, the ban is necessary, because the veil is intrinsically a symbol of the oppression of women.

Most notably, QS founder, Françoise David, echoed this feminist argument in 2013 when she explained that “For Quebec solidaire, the veil is not a trivial symbol. It is like all symbols and all the rules in the majority of religions which make women inferior.” This argument is actually the argument used by the right wing to justify banning the veil. François Legault even used this argument to justify a complete ban on the wearing of the chador by state employees.

For Marxists, the position is very simple. We are against all forms of oppression, coercion, and discrimination. Requiring women to remove the veil is just as oppressive as requiring them to wear it. The emancipation of women is not a question of symbols, but of concrete social and economic conditions. In fact, the prohibition of religious symbols would only lead to the humiliation of women who would be asked to remove their veil, and would only accentuate the stigmatization of a segment of this already highly discriminated population. Far from being a factor in advancing the status of women, banning the wearing of the veil for certain jobs only contributes to the exclusion and marginalization of some women. There is absolutely nothing emancipatory to seek to “free women” by telling them, paternalistically, how to dress!

Emancipation cannot be “imposed” from the outside, with laws or bureaucratic rules. Marxists explain that only through building a united mass movement of workers and oppressed peoples can we truly fight against all forms of oppression. We must also link this movement to the struggle against the capitalist system itself, which perpetuates and exacerbates various forms of oppression. This unified struggle of workers and oppressed layers against capitalism is the most powerful lever for breaking down racist, sexist, and other prejudices and thus effectively eradicating oppression.

Organizing the fight against the compromise

The “compromise” defended by the QS leadership has led to an organized opposition inside the party. There is now a group of more than 150 QS activists organized in the group Solidaires pour une Québec inclusif (Solidaires for an inclusive Quebec) who have been organizing for several months. A number of local riding associations have adopted resolutions and 20 QS candidates from the last election have signed a letter against the position defended by the parliamentary wing of the party. This has forced the party tops to place this question on the party agenda. A debate is now underway and the National Council in late May will decide on this question. The Marxists of La Riposte socialiste actively support and participate in this initiative.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of the compromise, activists of this collective point out that the position defended by the party leadership is also in contradiction with the party’s program and was never voted on by the members. The Declaration of Principles adopted by the members at the party’s founding congress in 2006 clearly states that “It is essential to strengthen the fight against racism and other forms of discrimination in areas such as access to housing, employment and justice.” On the question of religious symbols in particular, the program states that: “The state is secular, not the individuals. Quebec solidaire accepts the wearing of religious symbols by people using services offered by the state. Concerning state employees, they can wear religious symbols given that they are not used to proselytise and that wearing them does not in itself constitute a break with the deference to their position.”

The party leadership clings to the point regarding “deference to position” to justify the banning of religious symbols for state representatives in positions of authority. Deference to position forbids state functionaries from conducting propaganda of any kind (political or religious). Wearing religious symbols is seen by the advocates of the ban as if it is intrinsically linked to some form of religious propaganda even if no study or statistic shows a link between wearing religious symbols and a breach in deference. What is certain is that banning the wearing of religious symbols is intrinsically linked to marginalizing religious minorities and preventing them from performing certain jobs. It is the fight against racism and discrimination which must dictate our position.

Fight racism, fight the CAQ!

Since the Oct. 1 elections, Quebec solidaire finds itself in a good position to play an important role in the fight against the CAQ. This must begin by opposing this racist debate which is used by the CAQ to weaken the movement. We certainly cannot count on the moribund PQ or the Liberal Party to oppose the new government’s austerity measures and its attacks on religious minorities.

If we really want this debate on religious symbols to end, we must first stop compromising! Racism and xenophobia are tools used by the government and the ruling class to divide the workers, placing them in a weakened position and preventing them from fighting back. QS must oppose the ban on wearing religious symbols and organize a broad movement against this racist government. In this way we can change the terms of the debate and unmask the inherent xenophobia of the CAQ.

Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the rise in racism and xenophobia is part of a process of polarization that is taking place on a global scale. In this period of capitalist crisis, large sectors of the population are looking for someone to blame for their falling living standards. The far right blames religious minorities and immigrants. We must reply by pointing the finger at the real enemy: the capitalist class and the politicians who defend their interests by making the workers pay for their crisis. More than a simple party of the ballot box, QS must embrace its role as a party of the streets and mobilize a huge fightback against the policies of the CAQ and the capitalist system which has nothing to offer us except permanent austerity and more and more racism.

No compromises with the racists!

Fight racism, fight the CAQ!