15 May 2014

Losing faith: Québec at the crossroads

What happens when a people loses faith in its gods?

Half a century ago the province of Québec underwent a sea change that saw a once Roman Catholic monolith become radically secularized in a breathtakingly brief period. Where once the ecclesiastical hierarchy had presided over, not only churches, but schools, universities, labour unions, hospitals and charities, many people in La Belle Province felt a need for liberation from what they had come to consider an oppressive institutional presence dominating so many facets of life.

This Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution, coincided with the coming to office in 1960 of Jean Lesage’s Liberal government in Québec City. Lesage’s premiership promised to open up Québec society after a generation of Union Nationale rule under the recently deceased premier, Maurice Duplessis. Québec was on the move. While Montréal was preparing to host a world’s fair to celebrate Canada’s centenary, Quebeckers were trying to establish a new identity after the virtual collapse of the Catholic Church’s authority. Would they find their place within a renewed Confederation or would they go it alone?

While generations of Québécois had felt estranged from a spiritually apostate France after the 1789 Revolution, this antirevolutionary ethos vanished during the 1960s. The French Revolution had begun when Louis XVI had convoked the Estates General. Shortly thereafter, the Third Estate, consisting of commoners, rose up and abolished the first two estates, representing the clergy and nobility, declaring itself l’Assemblée nationale, that is, the National Assembly.

In 1968, in an eerie echo of the events of nearly two centuries earlier, Québec similarly abolished the upper chamber of its provincial legislature, le Conseil legislatif, while the lower chamber, l’Assemblée legislative, changed its name to – you guessed it – l’Assemblée nationale! The French Revolution had finally caught up with La Belle Province. That same year saw the formation of the Parti québécois, which sought a wholly French-speaking nation separate from Canada.

Much as the 1789 Revolution had seen France shift from a highly centralized absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings to a series of highly centralized post-revolutionary régimes, so the Quiet Revolution saw Québec emerge out from under the weight of a monolithic church into the hands of an equally monolithic state, which replaced the old bishops in controlling schools, universities and hospitals. Gradually, faith-based schools, ostensibly protected by the Constitution Act, 1867, were phased out by both Liberal and PQ governments, while even private schools, such as Montréal’s Loyola High School, are being pressured to conform to an officially-mandated religious relativism, which holds that all religions are equally true – or, perhaps more accurately, equally false.

Finally, as if to cap off the process of secularization, the PQ government of Premier Pauline Marois had proposed a Charter of Québec Values, which would establish the supposed religious neutrality of the provincial government and ban the wearing of overt religious symbols for public employees. With the dissolution of the National Assembly, the Charter – numbered Bill 60 – died, although the new Liberal government of Philippe Couillard has unwisely decided to revive a diluted version in the new Assembly.

With the recent defeat of Marois’s PQ government, some observers, such as the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, are heralding the demise of separatism after nearly half a century. But this is almost certainly premature, as separatism’s death knell has been sounded many times before.

Yet even if separatism is in terminal decline, Québec’s enduring quest to establish a post-christian identity will not go away any time soon. The heart needs to believe something. When a society loses faith in the true God, a thousand idols will compete to replace it. For the past two generations, Quebeckers have looked to l’État du Québec – the Québec state – as their established church and nationalism as their new religion. But this faith will not ultimately satisfy.

St. Augustine famously addressed God with these words: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” At some point, Quebeckers may come to recognize the spiritual emptiness of a secularizing nationalism as they taste the sour fruit of an overgrown state trying to impose its values on society. Unlikely to return to the days of an overextended church institute, Quebeckers may one day nevertheless stand at a crossroads where they will be face to face with the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. Let us pray that they choose the right path.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College and is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014). This appeared in the 12 May issue of Christian Courier as part of his monthly “Principalities & Powers” column.

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