Madam Speaker, my first love as a student, as a teacher and even as a child was literature. In a way, literature was my alma mater.
Through literature I perceived—or glimpsed, to be more accurate—the letters themselves, because letters both voluntarily and involuntarily encompass all of human knowledge.
That may be why I have always had a grateful admiration for and insatiable curiosity about the 18th century, and in particular the 18th century in France: That was the century of Enlightenment in England and the Erklärung in Germany. It was the century of reason, knowledge and intelligence.
The Enlightenment was the century of encyclopedias and rational dictionary of the sciences, arts and trades, the century of philosophers, of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, the century that cried loud and clear, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
It was the century of man guided by the light of the spirit, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but also of woman and the citizen with Olympe de Gouges, the century of democracy, access to knowledge, science, the ideal of progress, of tolerance and humanism, of equality. It was the century of the French Revolution, as well as the American Revolution.
It was a century of emancipation. It was the century that began the long separation of church and state in France. After the French Revolution, in little more than a century, people had to win the fight for the right to govern themselves by taking power from those they peered up at from below. That century marked the dawn of the people.
These men and women left us a great legacy. That all men, not God, decide for all men. This is the legacy that gives me the legitimate right to stand here today, before the members of the House of Commons, to represent some 100,000 citizens in the riding of Manicouagan.
Members will then understand my astonishment when, in fall 2015, more than three centuries after the French Revolution, when I was about to take my seat in the House, I heard the following words resound before the opening of the sitting:
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 was being forced to pray to the Christian God. I looked around and almost everyone was doing the same, whether they were Christian or perhaps Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, agnostic or atheist. I could not understand then, and I still cannot now, why Parliament should impose any faith, let alone its faith, on all parliamentarians, employees of the House and, by extrapolation, Quebeckers, of course, and Canadians, even if it is with the noblest of intentions, unless it is being done unconsciously. I felt the House of Commons was depriving me of my freedom of conscience.
Clearly, the Canadian Parliament has not yet finalized the divorce between church and state, which I believe is necessary, because every belief system carries with it its own sense of supremacy.
As a thinking being, capable of reasoning and blessed with freedom of conscience, the idea of relying on a higher power that has the ability to grant me “wisdom, knowledge and understanding” and that would be able to “guide me in my awareness of my duties and responsibilities” smacks of offloading my responsibility.
The blessings bestowed on Canada do not depend on some divine Christian will exercised through Christian members of Parliament.
The gifts Canada enjoys are preserved by the choices made by the representatives of the people, based on the will of the people. The government is responsible, and elected members are accountable.
I believe that this prayer obviously creates an insoluble conflict between freedom of conscience and empowerment, as well as between responsibility and accountability.
No one really believes something they are forced to believe. All they can do is pretend. No one takes part in a healthy debate if the conclusion relies on an intrinsic prior truth that they cannot understand. That is what this daily prayer symbolizes. These are essentially the two reasons that led me, on June 12, 2019, to try to table a motion on behalf of the Bloc Québécois to replace this prayer with a moment of reflection.
With all due respect for all religions, and in all humility, because I have no delusions of stealing heaven's fire like the mythological figure Prometheus, I have to say that taking part in a prayer that requires me to yield my freedom of conscience and reason to the invisible hands of a god, the Christian God, is something that is, in all good conscience, viscerally impossible.
To paraphrase Étienne de La Boétie, spiritual servitude can only be voluntary. I refuse to allow anyone to think for or through me. I refuse to have my thoughts dictated for me. I make my own choices, and I take responsibility.
My colleagues may have deduced that, in my opinion, religion is a private affair. Faith is a conscious and deliberate choice, and some people choose to adhere to the precepts and values of a theistic belief system in order to determine their existence, but that is a private and personal choice.
Faith is an individual decision, not a societal one. Beliefs cannot be imposed. Society cannot be forced to act according to imposed individual beliefs. The state must be neutral. It must be secular.
I will therefore not reveal to my colleagues what religion I belong to, whether or not I practise, whether I am an atheist or an agnostic, or what I think about the religion of the gods or of humankind. I will simply reiterate that I respect these belief systems. They all preach love, peace and sharing, and their core values have been shaping the world since the dawn of time. They are aimed at transcendence, and they are what separates us from the animals, along with our intelligence and our humanity.
In closing, this explains why I stand behind the curtain during the prayer. I believe I am not the only one to do so, whether out of respect for ourselves or for others, for our beliefs or our intellect, whether discreetly or perhaps even ostentatiously. Religion is private. Like me, it should remain behind the curtain, to be practised only in our homes and our places of worship.
Let us all, as parliamentarians, gather together in a genuine moment of free reflection during which some may choose to consult their conscience or God. When that happens, I will step into the House, and the House will step into the 21st century.