No, Ontario is not ‘100 per cent secular’

OPINION: MPP Michael Coteau’s criticisms of Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21 are spot on. His belief that this province is not still shaped by religion? Not so much
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 19, 2021
Liberal MPP Michael Coteau (left) and Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Christopher Skeete debate Quebec’s Bill 21 in TVO’s Political Blind Date. (TVO.org)

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There’s an interesting moment in this week’s episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date, focusing on Quebec’s Bill 21, that helpfully illuminates how critics of the legislation — in this case, Ontario MPP Michael Coteau — can get hung up on the, let’s euphemistically call them, “complications” of the relationship between church and state in our own province.

For starters, it’s worth putting my chips on the table in regard to Bill 21: although nominally about ensuring that public servants in positions of authority appear religiously neutral, the clear and obvious purpose of the law is to discriminate against religious minorities and women of those faiths in Quebec. I think that it is a bad law with bad motives and that it will do bad things to people who have done nothing to deserve such treatment. If it isn’t struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as a form of discrimination against women that even the Charter’s notwithstanding clause can’t save, my fervent hope is that a future Quebec government will allow it to expire.

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So I am, in this sense, on the same team as Coteau as he tries to gently and politely defend the idea that it’s possible to let police officers wear turbans and let teachers wear hijabs without the authority of the state being called into question or the world otherwise ending.

Nevertheless, I had to smile when Coteau's Québécois interlocutors push back on his assertion that Ontario is a “100 per cent secular” society. MNA Christopher Skeete observes, accurately, that MPPs start their days at Queen’s Park by saying the Lord’s Prayer, which is decidedly not a secular act — at least, it sure wasn’t when nuns taught me to recite it. It’s also not merely a relic that MPPs have inherited: the Liberals considered removing the Lord’s Prayer after the 2007 election but backed down in the face of furious demands that they maintain the status quo. In effect, they ended up reaffirming the primacy of Christianity at Queen’s Park. In a nod to the possibility of one day entering the 20th century, they did add some multicultural gloss: MPPs now recite multiple prayers from different faiths as well as — but only after — the Christian one.

Ontario is one of only four provinces that still recite the Lord’s Prayer or a version of it. If the legislature were a town council, doing so would be clearly unconstitutional; only the privilege afforded to Parliament and provincial legislatures allows MPPs to keep doing this, as it allowed Quebec to maintain a Christian crucifix in the National Assembly until 2019. (In lieu of a prayer, Quebec’s legislature has had a “moment of reflection” since the 1970s.)

One could, of course, go further: Ontario — unlike Quebec — maintains a publicly funded school system for one Christian denomination (Roman Catholics) to the exclusion of all other religions. Three of the eight “public holidays” spelled out in Ontario’s Employment Standards Act are either explicitly Christian holy days (Easter and Christmas) or directly related to them (Boxing Day). It’s not hard to find other examples.

All of which is to say that, while I align myself strongly with Coteau in his criticism of Bill 21, I also didn’t mind watching him being made briefly uncomfortable about Ontario’s own complacency.

“Ontario is a work in progress,” he told me Wednesday. “From where we’ve come from to where we’re going, things are changing constantly.” He suggested that, even if the religious holidays of other faiths aren’t recognized in law, workers who want those days off don’t face serious obstacles to getting that time off when they need it.

(Worth mentioning here: Coteau is also the Liberal critic for labour, training and skills development; I started our call by asking about his private member’s bill to implement paid sick leave for workers in Ontario.)

When I (a straight white male) said to Coteau (a Black man) that minorities in Ontario might roll their eyes at easy, comfortable assertions that we’re a secular, happily multicultural province, he kindly did not tell me where I could stick my desire to lecture him on the views of this province’s vulnerable communities.

“Here’s the stark difference: we are accepting and embracing the differences that different cultures and religions bring into Ontario,” he said. “Quebec is doing the complete opposite in the workplace for government workers.”

He did concede, however, that Ontario is facing big questions about its future.

“So many different things, and it’s not going to happen in my trajectory as a politician, but there’s some big questions that Ontario needs to answer that we kind of push aside,” Coteau said. “From the management of debt to the relationship between rural and urban Ontario, northern and southern, our schools, there’s so many things out there … it’s a huge thing that people are going to have to talk about, eventually — it’s going to be a tough conversation, in the future.”

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