The Quebec government’s Bill 62 — “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies” — is a response to a lingering collective concern among Quebecers regarding religious diversity and the integration of immigrants. The law, which came into effect in mid-October, provoked outrage among political and media elites in the Rest of Canada (ROC). But the indignation that targeted Quebec does not represent the attitudes of regular Canadians.
Bill 62 seeks to prevent individuals whose face is covered from providing or receiving public services. While the law was widely attacked by opposition politicians in the National Assembly and by Quebec media pundits for being confusing (notably due to Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée’s inability to explain how it would be applied and to her changing the interpretative limits of its proscriptions), the principle behind the law — that public services should be given and received with an uncovered face — is quite popular in the province. According to polls, a large majority of Quebecers support it, as do many members of the political and journalistic class.
The reaction has been different in the ROC. Although media pundits were not unanimous in their opinions, the vast majority were strongly against Quebec’s attempt to ban individuals who cover their face from providing and, especially, receiving public services. The reaction was even more uniform among politicians in English Canada, who strongly condemned the Quebec government’s attempt to regulate religious expression.
While this split of opinion may seem to be a manifestation of Canada’s “two solitudes,” the reality is quite different. Foreigners who happened to read the reactions to Bill 62 from politicians and pundits in English Canada might conclude that English Canada is strongly against a ban on people with covered faces giving and receiving public services. However, they would be wrong.
A number of polls that have been published since Bill 62 was voted into law have shown that the opinions of Canadians in the ROC on this issue are aligned with those of Quebecers.
Restrictions on face coverings receive support among a majority of English Canadians. This should not be surprising. At the heart of such a ban are negative attitudes toward the niqab and the burqa, and the perceived symbolic changes that they represent to a Western society. While Quebecers have often been labelled as being hypersensitive to the perceived social changes brought on by immigration, the cultural sensitivities of English Canadians have been somewhat overlooked. I explored this issue, in a recently published article in Ethnic and Racial Studies, and found that anglophone Canadians are just as sensitive to perceived cultural threats as francophone Quebecers. My findings are in line with those from an article recently published in Policy Options. Érick Lachapelle and his colleagues present findings from an original survey that show that Quebec is not distinct in its level of support for restricting religious garb; in fact, Quebecers are not even the most supportive of such a restriction.
While anglophones in the ROC clearly manifest discomfort related to issues of immigration and integration, these attitudes are seldom voiced by their political representatives.
The disconnect between elites and citizens in English Canada with regard to cultural sensitivity leads to two major sociopolitical dilemmas. First, there is a problem of democratic representation. While anglophones in the ROC clearly manifest discomfort related to issues of immigration and integration, these attitudes are seldom voiced by their political representatives. The example of restrictions on face coverings being strongly supported by citizens yet demonized by their elites demonstrates a gap in political representation. At the very least, these attitudes, widely shared by citizens in English Canada, should be brought forth and debated by political elites.
While English Canada has avoided the rise of movements similar to those credited with leading to Brexit and to the Trump presidency, it is not immune to this trend.
Second, this gap provides a fertile ground for a populist and nativist movement to take hold in English Canada. The recent rise of populist movements in Western liberal democracies underlines a dissatisfaction of citizens with elites. The rhetoric from populist politicians has placed the concerns of a hard-working citizenry in opposition to the policies of a disconnected, self-centred elite. While English Canada has avoided the rise of movements similar to those credited with leading to Brexit and to the Trump presidency, it is not immune to this trend. You don’t have to be very old to remember the success of the Reform Party, which built its electoral base in part by pitting western Canadians and their concerns against an unrepresentative political elite in Ottawa.
Although nativism differs conceptually from populism, it has often featured in the rhetoric of populist movements. Changes to society, and notably to culture, brought on by immigration can be rife with emotion. Therefore, sensitivities related to the perceived social changes induced by immigration are an easy, yet potentially powerful, tool to garner political attention.
Nevertheless, if these cultural sensitivities are not addressed, they can fester and become even more ripe for exploitation by calculating political actors, leading to the overt bigotry seen in many countries today. It is not unimaginable that a more charismatic politician than Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, with more sophisticated tactics, could use English Canadians’ discomfort with social diversity to garner political support.
The disconnect concerning cultural sensitivity in English Canada needs to be addressed. Elites in English Canada should stop focusing on Quebec, often in a negative light, look at their own backyard, and start to take seriously the cultural insecurity felt by their citizens. While cultural sensitivity caused by social diversity is a delicate issue, and one that sometimes leads to an escalation of political rhetoric, it cannot simply be ignored or, worse, undermined. A mature democratic society should be able to discuss and debate responsibly the most uncomfortable of issues affecting its population.
English Canada’s political elites need to be more courageous and more representative of their citizenry’s perception that there is a threat to their culture. If not, a populist and nativist movement that seeks to represent the “unrepresented” might become a serious political force in English Canada.
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