Several years ago my son was cycling home to his apartment in Outremont when he was approached at a corner by neighbours asking for a somewhat unusual favour.
They were devout Jews. It was the Sabbath. They needed him to come to their house and turn off the lights and some electrical appliances.
Happy to oblige, he was rewarded for his switch-flipping skills with warm thanks and a basket of food that went straight to a hungry university student's heart. Yet he took something far more lasting from the encounter.
"They don't just talk about what they believe," he said. "They live it in every day life."
The divide mapped by his two sentences has struck me ever since as an ideal identifier of the hole in the heart of Quebec cultural and political life. From this gap, an unholy amount of maladroitness, embarrassment, foolishness, and misunderstanding emerges. The misunderstanding, I have come to understand, is as much on the part of outsiders looking in on Quebec as it is an internal matter among Quebecers themselves.
During the recent furor over the ludicrous attempt to ban Sikh turbans on the province's soccer pitches, for example, much of the commentariat outside Quebec concluded that xenophobia—or something worse—was again rearing its ugly head in la belle province.
"Unlike all the other provinces, Quebec is home to many strong nationalists who see their province as culturally besieged by North America's Anglo behemoth. Unfortunately, the obsession with their own minority status causes some Québécois nationalists to fear immigrants as a diluting agent within French culture. From such insecurities, other uglier sentiments often follow," Jonathan Kay wrote in the National Post.
Kay's column was a very measured, intelligent, perceptive take on the turban flap. It gained added authority from him being a native Quebecer raised as a member of a minority religious group in the province. Yet even he, I think, mistook symptoms for underlying malaise.
What seems, on the surface, to be simply fear of outsiders "diluting" French culture is the more complex response of those who have long ago emptied their lives of truly lived faith and now face others whose faith is the fulfillment of life itself. It is the response of those who cannot stop talking about what they used to believe finding themselves among neighbours who live their vibrant beliefs to the full.
Evidence is found in the insistence on making exceptions—within the so-called Charter of Values being threatened by the Parti Quebecois government—for Christian symbols. The Crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly would be allowed to remain in place, for instance.
Critics dismiss such loopholism as niggardly at best, bigoted at worst. It's even worse. It's the reduction of a belief that once moved the world to a collection of tchotchkes. It is faith as furniture. It goes beyond the blandness of deism to the genuine dangers of treating icons as decorations, the numinous as nothing more than nostalgia.
It is bad enough when meaning is emptied ruthlessly. It is something else again when those responsible for the emptying are forced to abide with those for whom meaning truly means something. Or everything. The life of Christian faith was not just some historic accident or addendum in Quebec. It shaped the very heart of Quebec's culture, politics, and landscapes. The misbegotten visionaries of a generation ago thought they could simply extricate it, root it out, and fill the empty hole with, well, whatever came to hand. It hasn't worked out that way at all.
The emptied hole they left behind divides Quebecers from themselves and, now we see, from those who live their faith in the thousand details of their daily lives.