Madam Speaker, as I often do, I will start by making the topic accessible to those watching.
In Lac‑Saint‑Jean, I have a youth council, and we have a small Messenger group. We sometimes send each other stuff. Whenever I have a speech to make, I ask them if they have anything to say, and they really like that. I asked these young people in my riding, who are of different faiths, by the way, to read the following text. I assure the House that I will never repeat it again after I finish reading it:
Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as Members of Parliament, and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as Members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions. Amen.
I know that the Chair reads this prayer better than I do, but I tried anyway.
The House will not be surprised to learn that these young people were surprised. In fact, their reaction was fairly unanimous on one point: Parliament belongs to everyone, but to no particular religion. They all even insisted, and I share their opinion, that they respected everyone's faith.
After all, the freedom to believe or not to believe is a foundation of our democracy. It is something that is agreed upon.
To paraphrase two well-known authors in Quebec who explain this in more detail than I can, moral and religious diversity is a structuring and permanent characteristic of democratic societies.
Today's debate is not about anyone's personal beliefs. On the contrary, it is about our institution showing a preference for religion, and even for one religion in particular. Our motion is not emotionally charged, it is not disrespectful of anyone and it is certainly not dogmatic.
Our motion is directed at the growing cultural diversity that has become part of the fabric of our society and is expressed directly in this Parliament. As anyone can see, regardless of the parties represented here, the cultural and spiritual diversity among the members of this House is evident and significant.
Setting aside the beliefs of the members, there is also an evident and significant spiritual diversity among the people we represent, whether in Quebec or in the rest of Canada. Given all this spiritual diversity, it is worth questioning the neutrality of the state in light of the various religions and the growing number of people who do not believe in a god.
Societies change, and so has ours. We need to make changes to our institutions from time to time, which is fine and even necessary, since things are no longer the way they were in 1877.
For almost 150 years, the Speaker and his predecessors—most of them men, everyone will agree—have said a prayer in the House before each sitting, the one that I just read or a similar version. Some say that this is tradition, and that is fine.
However, if we were to rely solely on this argument, the Speaker would still be wearing a two cornered hat, such as the one worn by Napoleon, with a wig underneath. I must admit that I would be willing to revive this tradition if only so I could take a selfie with you, Madam Speaker.
All kidding aside, the fact remains that other than the attire, a lot has changed in Canada since then. This is obvious to me, as it is to the young people to whom I read the prayer and told about its existence.
The time has come to do something about it, quite simply, by adopting this motion that will give us the opportunity to pray, meditate, take a moment or recharge, as we see fit, in the way that best suits our values. That is why we propose two minutes of silence.
We believe that the best way to ensure the religious neutrality of the state is to keep the expression of one's religious beliefs a private matter, not an ostentatious display in public institutions.
I use the word “ostentatious” because I can already see people wanting to introduce all possible forms of belief into our institutions. This is a small aside, but I think that this would necessarily end up crowding out certain cultures and spiritualities, including indigenous ones, and I would find it dangerous to start judging practices one by one.
If we want to give real value to prayer or any religious demonstration of gratitude or reflection, it must be done in silence, peacefully, between the members and what they individually find meaningful.
Basically, what we are saying, and what half the world is thinking, is that the best approach to state spirituality is “one size fits all”, if I may say so. This would mean two minutes of silence, for everyone. That ends my aside.
Quite frankly, I believe that we are all equal here in Parliament. This way, each person can do as they wish in silence, without being ostentatious. It seems to me that elected officials are not chosen by or at the service of a supreme being. They are chosen by Quebeckers, or by Canadians, for my friends who live in other provinces.
I believe in the people who chose us to represent them. Every morning I get up and perform my little ritual. I look at the Post-it note on which I have written, “Who do you work for?”
Today, in this debate, I will answer the same way I always do: I work for the people of Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebeckers in all the splendour of their diversity. I believe that our role as MPs begins with representing the entire population and its diversity, with respect for everyone's beliefs. My ritual, if that is what it is, helps me do a better job, and it is my own. The Bloc Québécois and I find it rather odd that Parliament calls itself an institution that promotes the preservation and promotion of multiculturalism in Canadian society, yet it chooses to recite one prayer rather than another at the beginning of its sittings. It is a bit of a paradox, and I believe it comes at the expense of other religions or belief systems.
That is not a gesture of inclusion. We feel that it affects the participation of certain believers and non-believers in public life, to the detriment of others. Maintaining such traditions locks us into a way of thought that excludes certain communities. By stripping this moment of reflection of its one-dimensional religious character, we will be showing all believers and non-believers the basic respect that we owe them. I do not mean to muddle the debates, as this is not the purpose of the motion, but I must point out that we pray for the Queen, the head of the Anglican church, completely ignoring all other spiritual leaders.
The young people I showed the prayer to noticed it. We have a society that wants neutral institutions and more inclusive practices, but we continue to focus on the representative of one particular religion every day. We have to take a good look in the mirror.
Fortunately, there are examples we can draw on. Since December 15, 1976, the Quebec National Assembly no longer says a prayer, but instead meditates at the opening of each sitting. Its Speaker made this decision unilaterally at the time, saying he had made the change “[o]ut of respect for the members of this Assembly, who are not all necessarily of the same religious denomination”.
The idea may have been revolutionary at the time. I was not born yet. Today, it is a given, and it is not questioned anymore. In Nova Scotia, members observe a moment of silence and reflection before the Speaker opens the sitting. The government and the opposition even came to an agreement in Canada's oldest legislature, where the prayer had been said since 1758, back when New France still existed. That is no small thing.
In Saguenay, close to where I live, the practice of reciting a prayer in a place of power was scrutinized by our highest court. In 2015, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision stating that reciting the prayer impaired the plaintiff's freedom of conscience and religion. The Supreme Court said that the recitation of the prayer at city council was “a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to the exclusion of all others”.
Of course, the decision does not apply to the House because of parliamentary privilege. Nevertheless, it does have a significant impact on our debate about this practice in a place of power like this one.
I know the clock is ticking. I will conclude my speech with the following observations, many of them inspired by the ruling I quoted. First, I believe that, in light of everything I said and of the law, the state must be neutral on religion. Canadian and Québec society have evolved to view that neutrality as meaning that the state should not interfere in matters of religion and belief. That means neither favouring nor hindering any particular belief or unbelief.
The pursuit of the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the government to encourage the free participation of everyone in public life, regardless of their beliefs. By saying that we must maintain the prayer in Parliament because we think it is important and we believe in it, we are admitting that it is not neutral and is charged with a specific spirituality. Alternatively, if we say that the prayer is not so bad because it is just a tradition that does not mean much of anything, we are admitting that the words are not really important and everyone would be more than fine if we prayed in silence for what we want to pray for.
The prayer traps us in something we no longer are as a society, in other words, a colony under the yoke of religion and a city governed by a group of men, not so pious themselves, who concealed their actions in the shadow of God and a Queen, who actually have no role in our democratic responsibilities.