Interview with Lucie Jobin – President, Mouvement Laïque Québécois
Notes from the translator (David Rand):
- “État” and “état“
In French, the word État (state) is capitalized when used in the generic sense. For example, in Canada, each province is an État just as in the United States each état is an État. So for example, “employees of the State” may be written “fonctionnaires d’État”. I do not know if this is the norm in English, but I have decided to follow it in the English translation. Thus, I write Quebec State to mean the institutions (legislature, government, public service, etc.) of the province of Quebec.
- “Sécularisme” and “laïcité“
There is always a problem translating these two words into English because they both correspond to “secularism”. However in French the first is used to mean the limited, incomplete form of secularism understood in English-speaking countries whereas the second means true secularism as understood in Quebec, France, Turkey and other countries. Where the distinction is important, it can be specified in English by translating these terms as “religious neutrality” and “republican secularism” respectively. In any context where the distinction is not relevant, then just “secularism” will do.
Lucie Jobin is the President of the Mouvement Laïque Québécois. Here we talk about personal background, the Mouvement Laïque Québécois, and much more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did religion and secular thinking come into early life for you? How did this continue throughout development, in brief?
Lucie Jobin: As a young woman I was a feminist and had already developed a sceptical attitude towards various systems of religious belief.
As a student, my considerable work in philosophy led me to think more deeply and to develop a critical attitude towards religions. Furthermore, I found that religious ideologies were very sexist. Indeed, not only did they give very little space to women, but the roles reserved for women in religion were very unenviable. This reinforced my positions as a “non-believer.” I pursued a career as a teacher and in union and political activism, in an environment where rights and freedoms were promoted and democracy supported.
Jacobsen: Why was the Mouvement Laïque Québécois founded in the first place? How did you become originally involved with the organization and then earn the title of its president?
Jobin: It started off as a group of parents concerned about respect for freedom of conscience and who wanted their children to be exempted from the religious program given in all Quebec schools. In 1976, this group of parents launched an organization called “Association québécoise pour l’application du droit à l’exemption de l’enseignement religieux” (AQADER) or “Quebec Association for the Application of the Right to Exemption from Religious Teaching.” The pressure exerted by that activist organization forced the Montreal Catholic School Board to provide an alternative to the religion course so that their children would not be discriminated against. However, it was not until 1985 that this exemption arrangement was definitively replaced by a system of two options, religious education and moral education, so that all students had a real choice.
The MLQ grew out of this group. It was founded in 1981, independent of any affiliation with political parties, open to all citizens, regardless of religious belief or affiliation, all sharing one common fundamental goal: the complete secularization of the Quebec State and its public institutions. Ultimately the MLQ would like to contribute to founding a democratic secular republic of Quebec.
The MLQ is neither pro-religious nor anti-religious. Its purpose is to work towards a society that allows believers of all faiths and non-believers to live together in mutual respect with freedom and equal rights for every citizen before the law, protected from any form of discrimination or segregation. The MLQ has always advocated freedom of opinion and belief, which nevertheless must be exercised within the limits of civil law.
During the 1980s, as a teacher and atheist, I refused to teach the religion course and asked to be exempted from it. At the time, it was still difficult to obtain such an exemption. After several unsuccessful attempts and after threatening the school board to take my complaint to the Ministry of Education, I finally obtained the exemption after 8 years of employment.
I was a member of AQADER at the end of the 1970s and I was present when it reconstituted itself as the Mouvement laïque québécois. I was on the Board of Directors of the MLQ for several years and was elected president in 2010.
Jacobsen: How does the conversation on secularism differ between the Anglophone and Francophone sectors of Canadian Society?
Jobin: In Anglo-Saxon culture, instead of laïcité (for which no exact English equivalent exists), there is a form of State secularism which is limited to religious neutrality, granting the same privileges to all religions. In the United States, for example, the constitution bans the establishment of a State religion but does not forbid the establishment of special relations with religions. In the Ontario legislature, the MPPs alternately recite no less than eight prayers of various faiths, all in the name of “neutrality.” It is by virtue this same “neutrality” that Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, dons the trappings of all religions even in his position as head of government. In Quebec, this approach was also followed by the previous government of Philippe Couillard in adopting its Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality which authorizes the wearing of obvious religious symbols by State employees.
From our point of view, this kind of neutrality is an illusion and amounts in reality to complacency. The republican secularism (i.e. laïcité) which we promote, and which a very large majority of the Quebec population also supports, requires instead that all religious manifestations be proscribed within State institutions. This is in fact the approach taken by the Supreme Court of Canada in its decision about municipal prayers in Saguenay, but which no government has yet had the courage to enforce. Even though that Court did not explicitly mention the principle of laïcité which is non-existent in Canadian and Quebec legislation, the Court nevertheless rendered a judgment in conformity with laïcité by banning prayer in public institutions.
Jacobsen: How is the activism and conversation around a single secular school system proceeding in Quebec now? Why is it at this stage now? How can other secular organizations help you? What most needs doing?
Jobin: Currently in Quebec a new debate about secularism is beginning. The new government of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) intends to table draft legislation concerning that issue in the spring. Ever since 1980 the MLQ has called for the deconfessionalization of the school system and we have submitted briefs, with that purpose in mind, for every new draft bill which dealt with the issues of education and public institutions.
We participated in the Coalition for the deconfessionalization of the school system, demanding the repeal of Section 93 of the British North America Act (BNA Act). There were some sixty organizations in that Coalition. Finally the government of Quebec obtained the repeal and school boards thus became language-based starting in 1998.
This deconfessionalization was the obvious key which allowed Quebec to welcome immigrants from all origins into French-language schools, immigrants who had previously been shunted off to the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. This absurd situation had led inexorably to Québécois becoming a demographic minority in the Montreal region.
Over the course of the last few years, governments of the Parti québécois and the Liberal Party of Quebec have tabled draft legislation (Bills 60 and 62) dealing with secularism. We have submitted briefs and participated in the Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL) with the goal of obtaining legislation which would implement true secularism by inscribing laïcité in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We also launched a petition for the withdrawal of the Ethics and Religious Culture program implemented in Quebec schools in 2008 and which promotes religion. That petition collected more than 5000 signatures and was tabled before the government in 2017.
Currently we are waiting to see what the new government will do.
Jacobsen: What was Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City) (2015)? How was this a victory for secularism? How can other organizations and collectives learn from a positive outcome?
Jobin: The complainant, Alain Simoneau, an ex-resident of Saguenay, supported by the Mouvement laïque québécois, stressed the fact that he had proposed to the mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, that the prayer be replaced by a minute of silence. Such an arrangement would have made the whole judicial saga unnecessary, but the mayor refused and today the situation has turned against him.
This unanimous decision made in April of 2015 by the nine judges of the Supreme Court of Canada stipulates that real neutrality requires that the State neither favour nor disfavour any religion and that it abstain from taking a position on this issue.
For its part, the preamble to the Canadian constitution which recognizes the “supremacy of God” is reduced by the Court’s decision to a “political theory” with no legal significance. This preamble, which was another argument put forward by Saguenay, “cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the State to consciously profess a theistic faith.”
We see that, with this decision, society has taken one more step towards recognizing true State neutrality and freedom of conscience for non-believers.
Jacobsen: What is the Condorcet-Dessaulles award? Who have been previous awardees? What are the criteria for earning it?
Jobin: The Condorcet-Dessaulles Prize was initiated by the Mouvement laïque québécois in 1993, some 25 years ago, to recognize the remarkable contribution made by a person or a group of persons towards the promotion and defence of secularism in Quebec.
Recall that Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) was a great French political philosopher, economist, mathematician and politician who was actively involved in the fight for human rights and for the defence of freedom of conscience, for women’s right to vote, for freedom of the press, for the right of every citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice or no religion, for separation between religion and State, and for the equal distribution of wealth. Condorcet is thus rightly considered to be the theoretician of modern secularism and republican democracy.
In 19th century Quebec, Louis-Antoine Dessaulles (1819-1895), essayist and politician, nephew of Louis-Joseph Papineau and member of the Institut canadien de Montréal, led a fight inspired by the same ideal, for freedom of thought. He confronted ultramontane clericalism which promoted the idea that ecclesiastical power should constitute in effect a State within the State. By his action and his work he was thus a kindred spirit of Condorcet in Quebec.
Several individuals have been awarded the Prize, including Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Pierre Bourgault, senator Jacques Hébert, Rodrigue Tremblay, Paul Bégin, Daniel Baril, Guy Rocher and legal expert Luc Alarie, Mss. Jeannette Bertrand, Yolande Geadah, Danielle Payette, Djemila Benhabib, Louise Mailloux and, in 2018, Mss. Andréa Richard and Nadia El-Mabrouk. Various organizations have also been honoured: the Committee of Institutionalized Duplessis Orphans, the teachers’ union Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec, the Quebec Public Servants Union and the Mouvement laïque de langue française (MLF).
Jacobsen: How can Francophone and Anglophone secular organizations in Canadian society organize and mobilize larger activist efforts to ramp up secularization and equality of non-religious people in Canadian society?
Jobin: At the time when were undertaking court proceedings in the Saguenay prayer case, we appealed to these organizations for financial support and some responded by supporting us when we appeared before the Supreme Court, including the Canadian Secular Alliance and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
The decision of the Supreme Court concerning State neutrality could be used at different levels of government and in different provinces to demand an end to various religious practices.
We could challenge fiscal privileges enjoyed by churches and other religious institutions and by any cultural or charitable associations affiliated with them.
In the general public interest, we should make common cause to denounce the countless cases of sexual abuse committed by members of various clergies, principally the Catholic clergy, as churches are so obviously incapable of policing themselves.
Jacobsen: What are the next big steps for secularism in Quebec?
Jobin: In the upcoming months, our action will consist in demanding a real law on secularism (laïcité) in Quebec by submitting briefs, writing articles and collaborating with other organizations which promote secularism and support a ban on obvious religious symbols worn by public sector workers, in particular teaching staff. We will pursue our existing campaign for the withdrawal of the Ethics and Religious Culture program and will attempt to establish contacts with parents and students.
We also plan to organize public lectures on these issues.
Jacobsen: How are reactionary fundamentalist religious forces working to restrict the efforts of secularism in Canada?
Jobin: We have to deal with complacent media which defend so-called “open” secularism and who support the opponents of any ban on religious symbols while favouring multiculturalist positions.
Jacobsen: What are your hopes and fears for 2019?
Jobin: We hope for a veritable law on secularism which will inscribe laïcité into the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms and ban the wearing of religious symbols in the public service.
Our fear is that strident opposition from multiculturalists and fundamentalists may undermine that hope. We shall see…
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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