Secularism in Quebec

The Quiet Revolution (1960–1970) gave rise to secularism within Quebec society. The latter became both secular by widening the separation between Church and State, as well as non-confessional by removing religion from institutions. 

However, the issue of secularism is still a matter for debate. In June 2019, the passage of the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State fueled many discussions about the place of religion in public domain.

The Quiet Revolution (1960–1970) gave rise to secularism within Quebec society. The latter became both secular by widening the separation between Church and State, as well as non-confessional by removing religion from institutions.  However, the issue of secularism is still a matter for debate. In June 2019, the passage of the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State fueled many discussions about the place of religion in public domain.


La croix du mont Royal

Pierre Ayot's La croix du mont Royal in October 2016.

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Before the Quiet Revolution

In 1867, when the Confederation was formed, the Constitution of Canada left social and cultural matters under provincial jurisdiction. The State of Quebec’s influence was limited by low financial means and its role was minimized by liberal ideology. On the other hand, the Catholic Church was motivated by the ultramontane doctrine and wished to play a key role in culture and society.

In other parts of Canada and the United States, populations adopted diverse beliefs and thus often formed interfaith or neutral social and political groups. In Quebec, almost all French Canadians were Catholics, so they mostly united in confessional groups. Cooperatives, unions and other organizations, such as the Union catholique des cultivateurs (now the Union des producteurs agricoles), the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada (now the Confédération des syndicats nationaux), presented their religious affiliations more openly. The Catholic Church took advantage of this situation to guide the French-Canadian population through institutions and symbolism.

The Church thus controlled the French-Canadian lifestyle, namely its parishes, study circles, schools, hospitals, and entertainment, as well as several periodicals. The Church is at the heart of villages, which are almost all named after saints, and Montreal is nicknamed the “city of a hundred steeples”.

Notre-Dame de Québec Church
Interior of Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec (basilica-cathedral).

The Catholic faith also defines the French-Canadian identity. In 1905, Thomas Chapais, a historian, journalist and politician, declared, “A non-Catholic Canadien-français is an anomaly. A Canadien [français] who is no longer Catholic after having been Catholic is a monstrosity.” »

In Quebec, the Church’s influence on the lives of French-Canadian lives resulted in a significant rise in religious vocations. Thus, in 1951, there were 90 Catholics for each religious figure (priests, friars and nuns; this ratio was 400 to 1 in 2006). At the time, English Canada often called Quebec the “priest-ridden province”.

Quiet Revolution

During the Quiet Revolution (1960–1970), Quebec society began to secularize.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) endorsed this evolution by ceasing to make the religion-centred State an article of the Catholic doctrine.

The move to secularism was in part the result of a moral revolution. Women emancipation, in particular, disrupted the ancient order. The opposition to patriarchal authority, the normalization of divorce and the introduction of women in the labour market all called into question the place of religion in society. People increasingly believed monotheistic religions to be misogynistic. (See Women and the Quiet Revolution.)

Fédération des femmes du Québec

Laicity was also the result of Quebec’s new characterization as a welfare state. Tasks previously undertaken by the Church were now being managed by the every-growing state. The welfare state gained ground after the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education in the Province of Quebec submitted the Parent report (1963–1966). This report brought about the creation of the Ministry for education in 1964, and Quebec stopped operating its school system according to the Catholic Church’s expectations. Education policies were now guided by the demands of a society supported by democracy, pluralism and technology.

During the 1960s, religious observance started to plummet. Baby-boomers mocked priests’ sermons. While the people did not necessarily lose their faith, they began to choose their own belief systems and to make choices outside the guidance of established religions.

Contemporary Period (since 2000)

From 1970 to 2000, secularism grew within Quebec. In the late 1990s, school boards were grouped according to language instead of religion. In 2000, this change was implemented in schools, after a reform of the education system.

However, French-Canadian Quebecers were still somewhat personally attached to Catholicism. In fact, many of them had difficulty accepting the presence of non-Christian religions in private and public spaces, and considered them an attack on their own traditions.

An example of this lasting relationship with Catholicism could be observed in the National Assembly : a crucifix was placed above the President’s seat in the Salon bleu, where the members of the legislature sit. Some people defended its place because they believe it represents a part of the French nation’s history in America. According to them, the crucifix is part of Quebec’s “intangible heritage.” In 2019, the National Assembly passed a motion to remove it from the Salon bleu and showcase it somewhere else in the parliament.

Photo showing the crucifix formerly hung above the Speaker's chair in the National Assembly
The crucifix in its former position above the Speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly. Photo taken in 2018.
( "Salon Bleu, Hôtel du Parlement du Québec" by Orkhan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2006, the “crisis” of reasonable accommodations broke out as the result of demands made by members of certain groups to be exempted from several regulations because of their religious beliefs. For example, in Montreal, a young Sikh claimed the right to carry a kirpan (ceremonial dagger) on school grounds in the name of his faith. His school was managed by a board which banned edged weapons, and the case was brought to court. The Superior Court of Quebec allowed the kirpan to be carried in school while the Court of Appeal sided with the school board. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada overruled this decision and authorized the student to bring his kirpan to school.

Bouchard-Taylor Commission

The controversy intensified, deepened by sensationalistic reporting in the media. In 2007, the government of Quebec announced the creation of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. It was also known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, after its copresidents Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Among other measures, the report recommended that agents of the state be banned from wearing any religious symbols. The public servants in question included magistrates, Crown Attorneys, police officers, prison guards and the president and vice-presidents of the National Assembly.

Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, co-chairs of Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (2007-2008).

Some believed that the Commission had gone too far. In their opinion, a secular Quebec required the acknowledgement of religious plurality. They argued that a secular state is one that treats people equally, while taking into consideration “reasonable” requests made in the name of religious faith.

Others thought that the measures taken by the Commission were in fact insufficient. They believed that a secular state should never consider any person’s religious convictions. They claimed that, on the contrary, it should ensure that religion be as invisible as possible in public domain. According to this school of thought, religion causes communitarianism (i.e., social divisions) as well as obscurantism. (Obscurantism refers to the devaluation of scientific knowledge and human rights, namely the principle of gender equality.)

Quebec Values Charter
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec's proposed Values Charter in Montreal on Saturday Sept. 14, 2013

Quebec Values Charter

On 7 November 2013, the Parti québécois introduced a bill in Quebec’s National Assembly, titled Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. This Quebec Values Charter lost traction when the Liberal Party, who believed it “pointlessly creates division”, won the elections on 7 April 2014.

Act Respecting the Laicity of the State

In June 2019, while Coalition Avenir Québec was in power, the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State was adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly. This law was the first to stipulate that “The State of Québec is a lay State”. Like the recommendation in the Bouchard-Taylor report, the Act forbids state employees exercising coercive authority (e.g., police officers and judges) from wearing religious symbols. However, under the Act, this ban also applied to public school teachers, while employees who were active before the bill was introduced retained acquired rights in this regard.

Criticism erupted as soon as the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State was adopted. Several observers, including Charles Taylor, believed that the effects of the Act’s requirements deplorably contradicted its intentions. They claimed that the Act was detrimental to harmonious coexistence, stigmatized certain populations that were already marginalized and vulnerable, and contributed to the segregation of some groups.

The government was ready to use the notwithstanding clause as soon as the bill was passed. This clause would allow the override of certain rights stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite this, the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State was immediately challenged before the courts. In April 2021, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that Quebec English school boards and Members of the National Assembly were exempt from the law.