The Quebec turban ban: What doesn’t get said

Paul Wells on multiculturalism and separation of church and state
Aneel Samra, 18, plays with a soccer ball in his backyard, Wednesday, June 5, 2013 in Montreal.Samra has not been able to play organized soccer since last year due to his religious headgear.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Ryan Remiorz/CP

I don’t agree with the Quebec Soccer Federation’s ban on kids wearing turbans, but there are a few aspects to the debate — to the limited extent there is a debate, as opposed to a dialogue of the deaf — that are really obvious to me but that I’m not hearing from either the supporters or the opponents of the turban ban. Let me try to make two quick points.

Multiculturalism. Who could be against it? It means “many cultures.” That’s so beautiful. But here’s the thing. The longer you study political science in Quebec, and the better the school you attended, the more deeply you believe — because you have been told this hundreds of times; as often as you have been told a hammer will fall if you drop it — that Pierre Trudeau adopted official multiculturalism as a policy for one reason: to dilute the “two founding nations” theory of Canada as an essentially equal partnership of English and French Canadians. The more educated you are in Quebec, the likelier you are to regard any reference to multiculturalism as a direct attack on the notion of an autonomous, self-governing and francophone Quebec, masterminded by Trudeau, who is essentially regarded as a race traitor.

I know this argument will be dismissed as ridiculous by most of my readers, and viewed as so obvious it’s hardly worth stating by a few others. I’m running around a bit today and don’t have dynamite documentation for this theory to show you, but here are a couple of references to a 1997 book by Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada, that I would put on my short list of readings for my imaginary half-term course on Iconoclastic Readings in Canadian Political Science.

The upshot is that when an urbane, serious fellow like Joseph Facal, who was born in Uruguay and moved to Quebec when he was 9 years old, thinks about the turban ban, he sees it the way most of its defenders do: as a perfectly reasonable re-affirmation of common Quebec values that would never be questioned except by English Canadians looking for a pretext to shaft Quebec. It makes him crazy.

Laïcisme. It’s like those French have a different word for everything, as Steve Martin used to say. In English Canada, we grow up with a fairly American notion of “separation of church and state,” which is essentially liberal and laissez-faire: let people dress, worship, congregate and speak as they like. The state’s role is to endorse none of these doctrines, but it is no skin off the state’s nose if those doctrines flourish on their own dime and time. In the French Republic, it’s a rather narrower concept: not only does the state not endorse a creed, there is a general belief that no creed must display itself ostentatiously in public.

There’s a lot of room for nuance on the details of this notion. But it helps explain why resistance to hijabs, turbans, kirpans and so on, normally associated with the political right in other provinces, is often found on the political left in Quebec. The last time women in veils were common sights in France and Quebec, the religion enforcing the doctrine was Catholicism and its opponents were on the left.

I point this out mostly to shine a light. I’m very much an anglo-saxon on these questions. I do not believe that in most cases, somebody walking down the street is assaulting me, or my sense of community, by dressing differently. But I can’t help pointing something else out. Very similar debates are quite recent in English Canada: recall the uproar over Mounties wearing turbans in the late 1980s. And you probably won’t recall, but I certainly do, that when the question of ceremonial Sikh daggers in Quebec’s National Assembly was a big debate a few years ago, this government — Stephen Harper’s government — kept its head down for a few days before deciding to support Sikhs over Quebec politicians. Now that they’ve decided which side their electoral bread is buttered on, the Harper government now wastes no time endorsing a very Trudeauvian notion of multiculturalism, even at the cost of another once-cherished Conservative notion, provincial autonomy. It is simply inconceivable to me that Jason Kenney would have supported turbans on soccer fields in, say, 1998. So attitudes change. This blogger, who expected in 2011 that it would take “a majority government” to get rid of official multiculturalism, will be disappointed.