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50 Years After

Christopher Sands

Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In a moving passage that cites an American patriotic song (sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen”), King said, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’”

Would such a direct reference to religious belief be tolerated in Quebec today? Yes, but for how long in the future is unclear. Dr. King’s call to freedom and liberty might be considered inconsistent with “Quebec values.”

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is an avowed separatist pursuing this agenda by unusual means: a series of xenophobic policies that is ostracizing Quebec from the 21st century mainstream. When all eyes have turned away from the province in revulsion, it will be a place apart. In other words, separate.

Marois’ government recently introduced legislation to establish a “Charter of Quebec Values” and the values it imposes are militantly secular. Citizens will be banned from wearing “ostentatious” religious clothing or jewelry, from large crucifixes, to Sikh kippas, to hijab veils and headscarves.

That the Canadian province that very nearly gave the world the first Roman Catholic pontiff from the Western Hemisphere, Cardinal Marc Ouellet is now talking about banning the wearing of crucifixes as incompatible with “Quebec Values” is a shock, particularly to those who have visited Quebec and seen its beautiful churches.

It isn’t only Christians whose silent religious expression is under threat. In June, the nongovernmental Quebec Soccer Federation
instituted a ban on all religious head coverings including turbans, keskis and patkas. This ban also applied to young players from other provinces, or visiting from the United States hoping to play in a tournament there.

And in May, Bernard Drainville, Marois’ Minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, complained in a radio interview about the City of Montreal’s policy of waiving parking restrictions in certain areas on Jewish holidays. What Montreal long considered a reasonable accommodation of religion struck Drainville as a Jewish privilege.

Where does this animus against religious expression come from? In Quebec as in the United States there is a defensive attitude in secular circles that sees religious people and their beliefs as an impediment to “progress.” U.S. health care reformers use government to mandate abortion coverage for even religious organizations that oppose abortion on moral grounds. And in Quebec, “money and the ethnic vote” defeated the 1995 referendum bid for independence, in the words of former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau.

In the west, when religious believers are curtailing political agendas, some politicians will try to curtail their religious expression in the hope of marginalizing a societal force that resists the state’s dominance of society.

In other parts of the world, as my Hudson Institute colleagues
Nina Shea and Paul Marshall have documented, religious groups rather than progressives have tried to use the power of the state to silence those who criticize religion in any way. They turn blasphemy into a criminal offense, and freedom of expression is restricted. Freedom, whether freedom of expression or freedom of religious belief, isn’t free. Every generation must renew the fight to protect and defend these rights against government encroachment.

The threat to liberty in Quebec today should inspire friends of basic freedoms in Quebec, Canada, the United States and elsewhere to pay attention, speak out, and reach out—reach out to those Quebeckers who feel that their values can only flourish if those of their neighbours are suppressed.

It is also a reminder—necessary since our memories of the civil rights struggles in the United States not so long ago have started to fade—that we in the West are not immune to the kinds of xenophobic and intolerant impulses we condemn abroad, such as attacks on Afghan schoolgirls by the Taliban or Putin’s anti-homosexual policies in Russia.

King’s dream of a time when, “my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” is the essence of freedom. The civil rights struggle of our time is to insist that the only valid standard is the content of our own character, and not our religious clothing, celebration of particular holidays, or the language we speak at work and at home.

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