It is with emotion that I receive the international prize for secularism. I am proud to join this group of laureates who, each in their own way, fought so that each person could freely express their thoughts and live according to their values.
I am personally very touched by this, but I want to be fair to those who fought for secularism in Quebec. History is not written in the singular, and there is an adage that I repeat every time I have the opportunity: “If we see further than those who preceded us, it is because we sit on their shoulders. »
After the Conquest of 1759-1760, dominated by its clergy, Quebec society began a long period of survival where the religious built and controlled schools, hospitals and public assistance.
In fact, it was not until 1960 that a wind of change rose that would allow Quebec to undertake the separation between Church and State and to open up enthusiastically to the world.
In this regard, the first and deepest fault lines were in the world of education. We have successively witnessed the creation of the Ministry of Education, CEGEPs and, in 1968, the creation of the Université du Québec, the first public university. Thanks to the audacity of a fiery minister, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, and a man of the Church open to the values of his time, Alphonse-Marie Parent, the helm was masterful.
The big changes are made over time and there were many obstacles on the way we still had to go.
It took until the end of the 1990s, when I was Minister of Education, to conclude delicate negotiations with the religious authorities, the English-speaking community and the federal government in order to remove the constitutional obstacle which prevented the creation of French and English linguistic school boards.
Until then, the State had been required to accept the presence of a deputy minister of Catholic faith and another of Protestant faith. No program, no textbook could be authorized without their consent.
Finally, barely three years ago, the law on secularism was adopted by our National Assembly. This prohibits teachers and persons who represent the authority of the State from wearing ostentatious signs of religious affiliation.
The road has been long to travel, but the road is not over and progress remains fragile on American soil. Quebec must overcome major legal and political obstacles each time it wants to protect French, each time it wants to frame the rules that must govern the art of living together in a pluralistic society. Each time also that we wish to promote the secularism of the State.
An expanded definition of incitement to hatred
In the name of the defense of rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Constitution, the ban on the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols by teachers and officers who represent the authority of the State is attacked with animosity before the courts. For the Canadian government and the English-language media, the decisions of the European Court of Justice regarding the wearing of religious symbols are totally discriminatory.
If we want to understand the resistance of the federal state to the Quebec vision of secularism, we must know that Canada grants religions a very special status.
Concerned by the increase in hate crimes, the Canadian government wanted to broaden the definition of incitement to hatred in its criminal code. Thanks to the vigilance of Marie-Claude Girard, a former director at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, we learned that Ottawa has chosen to continue to protect religious speech that can incite hatred if it is “uttered good faith and based on a religious text”.
The secularism defended since the Age of Enlightenment has brought something important to all of humanity, a vision that embodies both freedom of expression and the spirit of tolerance. In a secular and democratic state, everyone is free in their faith, but the rules that define the art of living together should not be determined by religious precepts.
In democratic societies which will inevitably be more pluralistic, the best way to respect the rights and freedoms of all is to define common values which allow us to live harmoniously together. This is what I call the cement that must unite us.
In my mind, there is no doubt that the defense of democracy, equality between men and women, equal opportunities and the secularism of the State are the foundations of the societies of the future.
There is a French feminist, philosopher and woman of letters for whom I have particular admiration. It is, you may have guessed it, Elisabeth Badinter, who affirmed with great lucidity that “without a good deal of secularism, the liberation of women is impossible”.
The march of history never stops. On all fronts, the conquests of the women and men who have fought for us to live in more democratic, fairer and more humane societies will not stand the test of time if we do not defend them.
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