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Religious accommodation: A new front in Quebec’s sovereignty battle?

Quebec stands on the verge of an explosive debate about multiculturalism. And its sparks could be enough to reignite a seemingly moribund sovereigntist movement.

The denunciation of multiculturalism by some within the sovereignty movement represents a political expression of Quebec's secular identity. Quebec sees secularism as tied to its distinct identity – a marked difference from the Canadian understanding of religious accommodation. The Parti Québécois, for example, has called for amendments to the province's human rights charter that would place limitations on certain fundamental rights by giving priority to the secular nature of Quebec society.

How did secularism and multiculturalism emerge as important issues in Quebec?

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The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, tasked with examining how to best accommodate religious and cultural minorities, concluded that while the fears of those opposed to accommodating certain practices were unwarranted it "touched on an emotional chord among French-Canadian Quebeckers in such a way that requests for religious adjustments have spawned fears about the most valuable heritage of the Quiet Revolution, in particular gender equality and secularism." This has important political implications, which feed into the sovereignty debate.

First, although the Quebec political landscape is volatile, and it is unclear who will form the next government, the debate about multiculturalism will not dissipate. This means opportunities will continue to exist for the sovereignty movement to capitalize on the characteristically fractious nature of the discussion.

Pauline Marois has mused openly about pursuing a more aggressive secularism. She has stated that Bill 94, prohibiting the wearing of face coverings of any kind when providing or receiving government services, does not go far enough and instead wants a ban of the hijab in public spaces. While the ban on the niqab and burqa affects a small minority of Muslim women, a ban on the hijab would apply to a much larger portion of Muslim women. Could these types of arguments cohere the sovereignty movement around a shared value?

It is likely these types of measures, and other limitations on religious freedoms, will be subject to Charter challenges. Minorities will argue that the Quebec-style secularism of the PQ harmfully places restrictions on religious practice. This will simply be a freedom of religion claim. Quebec nationalists will contend these restrictions are necessary to protect Quebec's values and identity.

Whether or not Quebec has a right to restrict the wearing of the hijab will probably be decided with reference to the Charter. As with past linguistic debates, the Charter will occupy a central role, both as a constitutional reference point, and a political lightning rod. Sovereigntists may welcome these disputes because they aggravate the Canada-Quebec relationship by focusing on Quebec's right to enact policy against the dictates of a constitution it hasn't signed. Is it possible for the notwithstanding clause to be invoked to protect Quebec's secular ideals – this time by sovereigntist party?

Another dynamic may emerge, which touches on the multicultural context of the debate. At issue will be religious freedoms and how these freedoms are understood and exercised within a culturally plural setting. Minorities will appeal to the "multicultural" character of Canada in order to justify accommodations. These appeals will have little to do with cultural issues, but may create an entry point for Quebec nationalists to repudiate the "policy" of multiculturalism as a Canadian value. Debates about religious freedoms will morph into a secondary – but as divisive – debate about multiculturalism as an appropriate model of integration.

Sovereigntists could rally around the claim that "multiculturalism is not a Quebec value," and appeal to their own distinct model of integration. No Quebec government has adopted multiculturalism as official policy, and instead promotes "interculturalism." The Quebec model asserts French as the official public language and stresses the centrality of francophone culture. These two different models of integration are often played off against each other, and further entrench the apparent distinctness of Quebec society.

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What is striking is the extent to which the denunciation, or indifference, to Canadian multiculturalism extends beyond ardent supporters of Quebec sovereignty. A motion to ban wearing the kirpan in the National Assembly garnered unanimous support from the Quebec legislature. Even some federalists in Quebec are loath to support what is viewed as a Canadian model of integration. The sovereigntist case will embrace not only a secessionist argument, but also a protectionist one as well, and perhaps provide a measure of political legitimacy that attracts soft nationalists.

Electoral outcomes are never easy to predict nor are legislative priorities. But a multicultural elephant stands in Quebec, and its presence will be difficult to ignore for any future government – especially as religious and cultural diversity increases. The extent to which future Quebec governments pursue a more aggressive secularism, or further a greater hostility to Canadian multiculturalism may have a significant effect on the sovereignty debate.

At present, there is little to suggest that the sovereignty movement has achieved the "winning conditions" for a successful run at secession. And the movement is, as one commentator noted, in a "search for identity." This identity could be given shape and purpose by a more explicit prodding of that multicultural elephant.

Nazeer Patel is completing a doctoral thesis on multiculturalism and political philosophy at Queen's University

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