Quebec holidays

Quebec, COVID and the holidays: A little respect could’ve gone a long way

The provincial government’s authorization of family gatherings for four days over Christmas left religious minorities feeling slighted.

The Quebec government’s announcement that it would authorize a four-day holiday period from Dec. 24 to Dec. 27, was the source of much discussion and discontent last week. Aside from many valid concerns about COVID safety, many Quebecers who are part of a religious minority also couldn’t help but feel slighted by what they perceived as the elevation of one faith over all others.

During the presser, a reporter, hoping for clarification, asked: “Will Quebecers of Jewish faith be allowed to celebrate Hanukkah?” (which this year falls on Dec. 10), to which Premier Legault quickly replied: “No.”

Not surprisingly, I saw many question the double standards of a government that proclaims itself to be so adamantly secular it felt compelled to violate both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms and use the notwithstanding clause in order to ram through Bill 21, but is now suddenly seen as favouring one specific religious holiday over all others.

“François Legault’s paternalistic statements about family and the nation sometimes sound like they came straight from 1950s Quebec.”

First off, religious minorities in Quebec aren’t “complaining” about Legault’s holiday plan. Labelling it as “complaining” is dismissive. They are simply pointing out that the holiday (religious in nature or not) that was accommodated was, not surprisingly, the Catholic one, for many historical and logistical reasons.

The omnipresence of Catholicism

These Quebecers are not disconnected from reality. They live here, work here and send their kids to school here. They, too, understand and sympathize with the practical aspects of a government trying to choose days that would encompass as many people as possible and inconvenience few. Besides, as a friend on Twitter astutely observed, Legault is “a pragmatic, not a unifier.”

One can fully comprehend the Christmas Holiday is traditionally a civic holiday and a day off for most, while still being able to point out that the reason that is the case is because most of North America has been built around Christian norms and traditions.

Religious minorities already know that for most Quebecers, Christmas is devoid of religious significance — regardless of whether the symbolism and traditions remain very much connected to Catholicism and regardless of whether churches are packed for Christmas mass. What some Quebecers fail to understand is that to religious minorities, their respective holidays, too, are family gatherings, replete with traditions and significance. Yet theirs did not merit the courtesy of being acknowledged. They were dismissed as unimportant to the majority.

Not in tune with today’s Quebec

Legault represents a certain section of the Quebec population that is still very much stuck in the past. His paternalistic statements about family and the nation sometimes sound like they came straight from 1950s Quebec. It’s not necessarily malicious, but it’s the kind of rhetoric that’s deeply disconnected from today’s reality. His inability to understand or even think of the effects of his decisions on minorities is baffling at times.

When a reporter asked him whether the break could have taken place during another holiday, alluding to other religious holidays, he merely replied, “New Year’s isn’t an option.” It didn’t even occur to him that the reporter was asking about other religious holidays and that, perhaps, some Quebecers also want to have the opportunity to celebrate their holidays with their families and celebrate their traditions.

After I expressed these thoughts on social media, I was bombarded with people repeatedly trying to “explain” to me that it was merely a practical decision, because Christmas is a civic holiday and the school break falls on Christmas. Yes, I already know that.

Catho-laïcité is not real secularism

There is, however, a certain level of tunnel vision required not to comprehend that the very fact the school break centres around the Christmas holiday is not a mere coincidence. The fact that Christmas is the “default” holiday for most of us here demonstrates the pervasive power of Catholicism in today’s Quebec and why Catho-laïcité has become such a huge component of the province’s so-called selective secularism.

Everything that is Christian is immediately classified as part of our traditions, harmless folklore and collective patrimoine, and everything else that is non-Christian is immediately labelled religious by nature, “othered” and ignored because, after all, we’re secular here. Christianity continues to get a pass, while other faiths and traditions are perceived as oddities to be tolerated, vestiges of a religious past to be wary of and often looked down upon.

All Quebecers who live here already know that Christmas for most people is nothing more than an opportunity to get together with family, eat and drink too much, shop to our heart’s delight and get some much-needed rest from work. Well, guess what? For most Quebecers of all other faiths, that’s what their respective holidays are, too!

Muslim Quebecers weren’t allowed to gather for Ramadan or Eid. Diwali, one of the most significant holidays for Sikhs and Hindus, was celebrated in solitude this year. Jewish families were not able to gather on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and will not be able to gather for Hanukkah. Yet a few weeks later, the green light has suddenly been given for those celebrating Christmas to get their party pants on and let loose. At the very least, you must admit the optics don’t look good.

I’m aware that Legault is in an impossible position and decisions that will appeal to everyone are simply non-existent at this point in the pandemic. I’m not writing this to advocate for separate celebrations. I would personally be happier without this four-day celebratory period altogether because I find it incredibly risky at a time when COVID rates are not good. The seven-day quarantine period before and after Christmas makes little sense and won’t even be implemented by people who work with the public. Most of the healthcare workers I’ve spoken to are frazzled, concerned and unimpressed by this “moral contract” Legault proposed, and I suspect that none of us bothered to read the fine print. January might come as a shocker.

“Christianity continues to get a pass, while other faiths and traditions are perceived as oddities to be tolerated, vestiges of a religious past to be wary of and often looked down upon.”

But with the Bill 21 court challenge currently unfolding, is it that hard for Quebecers to understand that some religious communities can’t help but notice the double standards, in addition to Bill 21 supporters’ sudden ability to understand nuance when it comes to symbols? It’s downright fascinating how everyone who has come to my wall to argue that Christmas really isn’t about baby Jesus anymore doesn’t seem to have the same discerning ability to understand that for many Muslim women, the hijab is also cultural and traditional and less about religion. Nuance when it suits us, I guess.

An inclusive government includes everyone

Here is how it should have been handled in my humble opinion. Considering that many religious communities had to celebrate alone and in isolation, the very least Premier Legault should have done is publicly acknowledge them when he implicitly asked them to ignore their own holidays and unite under a single celebration.

If he governs for all Quebecers, he should have been able to say, “Listen… I know this decision leaves out many people, and for practical reasons we needed to reach the majority of Quebecers, but I hope that Quebecers of all faiths will be able to gather in this four-day period and celebrate with loved ones, regardless of the date.”

A simple message of inclusion and understanding like that would have gone a long way towards making everyone feel like they matter, like their family traditions, their holy days, their special celebrations are equally important. Instead, all they got was a monosyllabic “no.” Is it any wonder they feel slighted? ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.