August 19, 2017


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Rights and religion in Quebec

Think you know how Quebecers feel about the niqab?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/3/2015 (891 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Being an election year, speculation about election strategies is running wild. Take Prime Minister Harper's recent decision to publicly rebuke the Federal Court's strike-down of the Conservative Party's imposed ban on the wearing of niqabs during Canadian citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. Word is that this was an electoral tactic intended particularly to woo voters in what one learned scribe describes as "dogmatically secularist Quebec."

Likewise, the Bloc Québécois' recent "anti-niqab ad" takes direct aim at Tom Mulcair and the NDP, with the intention of sidelining the competition and winning back supporters in Quebec. But are divisive tactics such as this really likely to work? And are Quebecers really who people say they are?

Our evidence from a post-provincial election survey of more than 1,500 Quebecers in the spring of 2014 suggests that playing politics with religious symbols is not likely to attract voters. Moreover, the suggestion that Quebecers' views on religious freedoms are dogmatic is plainly overstated.

Our evidence shows no more than two in five Quebecers outright oppose "the specific right to wear and display religious symbols" and only one in 10 strongly oppose. This latter point is especially relevant because strongly opposed citizens are most likely to actually walk the talk. Meaning these voters were the most likely to be mobilized in favour of the anti-religious symbol rhetoric supplied the Party Québécois during the last provincial election in Quebec. But even then, only one in two actually voted PQ.

The evidence also shows that no more than one in 10 Quebecers who voted for either the NDP or the Liberals during the last federal election in 2011 are strongly opposed to the idea of wearing and displaying religious symbols. For the federal Conservatives, this means that the available vote gains on this particular issue are likely fairly small.

It is true however, that francophones and especially independentists are more likely than other Quebecers to strongly oppose the specific right to wear and display religious symbols. So the BQ stands a better chance of making gains from super-politicizing and mobilizing the anti-religious symbol sentiment. But this would be a major gamble, and we all remember what happened to the PQ during the last provincial election in Quebec when it decided to take that risk. Also, the BQ is still badly bruised from being virtually knocked out during the last federal election and it is increasingly evident that their traditional raison d'être will no longer simply do the trick. (No more than two in 10 francophones deem it necessary to have a referendum on sovereignty over the next four to five years. Even the majority of independentists believe that a referendum is not an immediate priority.)

Note too that, in principle, Quebecers are actually more supportive of protecting rights and freedoms than they are of creating a secular state. Nearly half of our survey respondents indicated that they strongly support the protection of citizens' rights and freedoms whereas only 27 per cent said that they strongly supported a secular state. However, Quebecers do place certain rights above others. For instance, 60 per cent of Quebecers strongly support the principle of gender equality, while only 37 per cent strongly support the idea of religious freedom. Still, the findings suggest that Quebecers are more adamant about religious freedom than they are about a secular state. This also applies for francophones. And even independentists are at least as supportive of religious freedom as they are of a secular state.

Consider, too, that very few Quebecers are very supportive of restricting rights and freedoms. Only one in five Quebecers and one in four francophones strongly support restricting government employees, inclusive of health-care workers, teachers, professors and police officers from "wearing or displaying religious symbols." Even fewer still would strongly support restricting such freedoms if doing so were to result in negative consequences, such as job losses or a decline in the economy. The same goes for restricting personal freedoms: very few Quebecers, francophones included, are strongly supportive of restricting the personal freedoms of people from different faiths, such as Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims, from wearing or displaying religious symbols.

None of this even remotely suggests that Quebec is a dogmatically secular society, nor does it suggest that large numbers of Quebecers are likely to flock to parties and leaders who play the anti-religious symbol card.

Come this October, those who wish to make substantial electoral gains in Quebec would be well advised not to seek to divide.


Mebs Kanji is an associate professor in political science at Concordia University in Montreal. Kerry Tannahill is a PhD candidate in

the department.


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