When the separatist Parti Québécois first came to power in Québec more than four decades ago, the language issue was front and center. It displaced the religious issue during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when the province's overwhelmingly Catholic identity collapsed. Within two years the government had enacted Bill 101, securing French as the preeminent means of communication in public life—which sparked a steady flight of Anglophones to other provinces. This was soon followed by a failed referendum on sovereignty in 1980.
Another law now threatens Canadian unity. This time, religion has overshadowed language. Québec's Bill 21 was enacted earlier this year by Premier François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec government. This controversial legislation prohibits provincial public employees from wearing overt religious garb—such as hijabs, turbans, and crucifixes—while on duty. Although this obviously conflicts with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms' guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression,” Legault's government has invoked the Charter's section 33 to defend the bill. This so-called Notwithstanding Clause allows Canada's governments to enact legislation notwithstanding certain sections of the Charter for renewable five-year periods. Legault is intentionally following France's century-old model of laïcité, an official secularism claiming to keep religious divisions safely out of the public square.
Ironically, despite the secularizing impact of the Quiet Revolution, Québec has not abandoned religious faith; it has simply redirected that faith toward a state-centered nationalism, around which the province's main parties are largely united. What was once a French Canadian nationalism bent on defending a Catholic society whose traditions harked back to pre-revolutionary France has become Québec nationalism, which looks to the state to protect the province's linguistic majority in a sea of English-speaking jurisdictions. If protecting this majority comes at the expense of minority interests within the province, then so be it.
This secular faith conflicts with the rest of Canada's equally secular, statist religion of human rights, eloquently defended by former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, now president and rector of Central European University in Budapest. For Ignatieff human rights are not God-given and have no basis in a stable human nature. Rather, their validity rests on their utilitarian function of knitting together “a community of rights-bearing equals.” Proponents believe that human rights are intrinsically inclusive. Thus the bearded and turbaned Jagmeet Singh can lead a major political party without relinquishing the external markers of his Sikh identity. Partisans of laïcité, on the other hand, believe that the best way to cement community is by concealing such distinguishing signs. The competing secular faiths thus differ on the significance of such markers. Whereas CAQ-style laïcité implicitly holds that externals and inner convictions cannot be easily separated, our human rights proponents are willing to tolerate external expressions of faith as publicly unimportant cultural distinctives.
Of course, simple adherence to a legal framework protecting the legitimate rights of citizens is not enough to make human rights a religious faith. This new faith also requires “means of grace” to work in the hearts of the people. One of these is Winnipeg's Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the brainchild of the late Israel “Izzy” Asper, which opened in 2014. Similarly, the Canadian Teachers Federation has devoted itself to advancing Human Rights Education in Canada, following United Nations recommendations aimed at “strengthen[ing[ the child’s capacity to enjoy the full range of human rights and promot[ing] a culture which is infused by human rights values.” This is more than the traditional civics lesson intended to make students productive and responsible citizens; it is a secular catechesis infused with all the fervor of a frontier revival meeting. Its high priesthood is the Supreme Court of Canada, once largely limited to hearing a plethora of tiresome civil cases, but newly empowered in 1982 with the august responsibility of defending the rights of Canadians under the Charter.
Canadians have had the reputation of being long-suffering, gentle, and self-effacing, but the new “human rights values” promised to turn this around, making us more jealous of protecting what we believe is ours. On this individualistic basis community was expected to thrive. Instead, it has made us more contentious and distrustful of each other, and less willing to deliberate over the merits of particular rights claims.
As Mary Ann Glendon has reminded us, “rights talk” threatens ordinary politics by making us less amenable to compromise and by turning our shared civic space into a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. That this is scarcely conducive to communal solidarity and a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of our fellow citizens should be obvious. Sadly, it is not evident to those initiated into a combative culture defined by “human rights values.”
Where does this leave Canada? We are divided by two incompatible secular religions warily facing off across the Ottawa River. Much as physics tells us that nature abhors a vacuum, Augustine tells us that the spirit does as well. Where we have banished the true God from public life, multiple idols will rush in to take his place. Canadians take pride in living in a pluralistic, multicultural society—a “peaceable kingdom,” as Northrop Frye famously described it. Yet we are caught up in a religious struggle in which tolerance has been one of the main casualties. Idols tend to be jealous gods, unwilling to share power with competitors. This may eventually end Canada as we know it.
In the recent federal election campaign, our party leaders were reluctant to weigh in publicly on Bill 21 for fear of losing votes in Québec, where the law remains popular. The Supreme Court could, of course, find that Bill 21 violates the Charter, although its judgment would have no effect on the law's validity until June 2024 at the earliest.
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln said of the United States, “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” Canadians are not dealing with anything as weighty as slavery, nor do we face civil war. However, we may not survive as a single country if our citizens do not enjoy equal rights and liberties everywhere. Furthermore, given that human rights have become our state religion, Canada may be unable over the long term to keep within Confederation a province in which a large majority dissent from this quasi-official faith.
David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions (2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He and his family reside in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.