Opponents of the accommodation of non-Christian religious practices by public institutions argue that Quebec is a secular society.
Premier Jean Charest, in announcing the creation of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on accommodations last February, said the separation of church and state are among Quebec’s fundamental values.
He said it again in his speech at the opening of the National Assembly session last May, adding that newcomers must "take (these) fundamental values with Quebec."
So maybe these newcomers would be confused to learn that the premier uttered these words about the importance of the separation of church and state in a legislative assembly where, on the wall above the speaker’s throne, there is a crucifix.
And maybe they would have been confused to see in this newspaper yesterday an advertisement placed by the Quebec government marking the 60th anniversary of a Quebec flag dominated by a cross.
Apparently, we’re not supposed to notice the obvious presence of a religious symbol on the flag representing a secular society whose fundamental values include the separation of church and state.
Some people try to reconcile this contradiction with the unconvincing argument that the cross is no longer a religious symbol but a cultural one.
Others simply ignore the contradiction, as Charest did in the message about the flag’s anniversary he issued yesterday.
He described the flag as "uniting," even though its design is composed entirely of elements representing only one of the groups in the province.
This it not made clear on the section of the government’s website about the flag, to which yesterday’s newspaper advertisement referred readers. (The site, www.drapeau.gouv.qc.ca, is in French only.)
There, the fleur-de-lis is described as "one of the oldest emblems in the world," used for 3,000 years. Some believed it was inspired by an iris that grew on the banks of the Lys river in Belgium.
It was used for ornamentation in Europe, "especially in France," but also as a heraldic symbol in England and Scotland.
As for the cross, the site barely mentions it at all. It says only that French explorer Jacques Cartier erected one in Gaspé in 1534, and that the ships of the trading companies that colonized New France in the 17th century flew "a blue flag with a white cross."
The history of the flag appears to have changed in the past 10 years. On its 50th anniversary, the government’s website described it this way :
"Its white cross on an azure field recalls the old banners of the French army, the white cross being the symbol of a Christian nation and the blue one of the dominant colours in the era of the monarchy. Its four fleur-de-lis represent the gold-coloured fleur-de-lis that symbolized the kingdom of France during the colonial period."
So as recently as 10 years ago, and for the first 50 years of its existence, the flag truly represented only the French colonists and their descendants. And it ignored all those who came before the French colonial period or afterward - the aboriginals, the British and others, including non-Christians.
For that reason, I used to think that the present design of the flag did not represent all of what Quebec had become, and even what it was at the time it was introduced by former premier Maurice Duplessis.
It did not represent a multiethnic, multidenominational Quebec any better than the Red Ensign represented Canada when it was replaced by the Maple Leaf in 1965. It represented the majority of Quebecers, but not all Quebecers.
But since the controversy over accommodation exposed inclusive, "civic" nationalism as a mere public-relations sham and rehabilitated ethnic nationalism, I’ve changed my mind. (Not that there was much chance of getting the flag changed anyway.)
What many Quebecers seem to want now is a secular society with separation of church and state - except for one religion. And a flag bearing the symbol of that religion is a pretty good representation of what they seem to want.