The first clash over a cross in Quebec occurred almost 500 years ago.
July 1534, Gaspé Bay. French explorer Jacques Cartier, on his first voyage to the New World, meets with Donnacona, an Iroquoian leader whose people had lived in the St. Lawrence Valley for centuries.
As he prepares to leave Gaspé, Cartier’s men erect a 30-foot-high wooden cross carved with the words “Vive le Roi de France” and the three fleurs-de-lis of French King François I’s coat of arms.
Cartier recounted Donnacona’s anger: “He made us a long harangue, making the sign of the cross with two of his fingers, and then he pointed to the land all around about, as if he wished to say that all this region belonged to him, and that we ought not to have set up this cross without his permission.”
But Cartier managed to placate his host, quieting Donnacona “with gifts and the unlikely reassurance that the cross was a simple beacon to help the French find their way back,” historian Alan Gordon recounts in The Hero and the Historians, a book about Cartier.
Half a millennium later, two Quebecers can look at another controversial cross — this one featuring a representation of Jesus Christ being crucified, prominently hanging above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly — and come away with very different opinions as to its meaning.
Is it a powerful religious symbol? A relic of Quebec’s Catholic past? A vivid reminder that white francophone Christians are in the majority?
Crosses are iconic symbols in Quebec — the illuminated one that towers over Mount Royal, the cruciform shape of the landmark Place Ville Marie office tower, the intersecting thick red bars on Montreal’s flag and the white ones on Quebec’s.
Critics say the crucifix in the province’s legislature is a case apart because it exposes the contradiction — some say hypocrisy — of Premier François Legault’s new Coalition Avenir Québec government. That’s because during the National Assemby session that begins next week, Legault’s government plans to introduce secularism legislation. In the name of keeping the state and religion separate, it is expected to prohibit certain public employees — teachers, prison guards, police officers, Crown prosecutors and judges — from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, turbans and crosses at work. Just this week, Legault made headlines when he confirmed his government is collecting data on the use of religious symbols among government workers.
As non-Christian immigration has made Quebec’s population more diverse, many in the Christian majority have resented what are seen as “reasonable accommodations” for minorities. Polls indicate most Quebecers support the ban on religious symbols worn by government workers — but they want to keep the crucifix in the National Assembly.
Frédéric Bastien, a Quebec historian and political commentator, said most Quebecers see no contradiction in keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly while outlawing religious symbols among some government employees.
“The crucifix is symbolic,” Bastien said. “It’s not like a police officer who would be wearing a kippah or a turban or a Muslim veil, a person who is exercising some authority and is arresting you.”
Quebec is hardly the only jurisdiction where the Christian symbol causes controversy. The use of Christian crosses — for political, religious and historical purposes — is inflaming passions around the world, fuelled by social and cultural changes and influxes of migrants and refugees into Christian-majority countries.
- In Germany, the country’s largest state, Bavaria, which includes the city of Munich, last year issued a decree: “a clearly visible cross must be placed in the entrance area” of public buildings. The state premier, fighting off a challenge by far-right opponents, said the cross must be highlighted because it’s “a fundamental symbol of our Bavarian identity and way of life.” An archbishop denounced the move, saying it amounted to “expropriating the cross in the name of the state.”
- In Italy, the hard-right, anti-immigrant League party, a key force in the country’s coalition government, is pushing to legally require the installation of crucifixes in all public places, including ports where immigrants arrive, as well as in universities, prisons and train stations. The aim is to promote a symbol of Italy’s “identity, the undisputed glue of a community,” the proposed bill states. Classroom crucifixes — ordered installed by fascist leader Benito Mussolini in the 1920s — became a flashpoint in Italy in 2002, when a mother who objected to them took the issue to court. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Italy could continue to have crucifixes in schools, in part because though the crucifix is “above all a religious symbol,” it is “an essentially passive symbol” and there’s no evidence it would have an impact on children.
- In most of France, where the 18th-century French Revolution was in part about taking power away from the Catholic Church, a law has prohibited the installation of new religious symbols in public places since 1905. Crosses still make headlines. A cross that is part of a statue of Pope John Paul II, installed in 2006 in northwest France, was deemed illegal by a court two years ago. That led to a backlash, with many Christians posting photos of crosses on Twitter with the hashtag #MontreTaCroix (Show your cross). Far-right leaders seized on the case.
The Vatican has been drawn into the debate.
Father Antonio Spadaro, an adviser to Pope Francis, last year slammed right-wing Italian politicians who want the crucifix installed in all public places, comparing the politicization of the symbol to “blasphemy.” Spadaro tweeted: “The cross is a sign of protest against sin, violence, injustice and death. It is NEVER an identity symbol. It screams of love to the enemy and unconditional acceptance. It is an embrace from God, defenceless. Hands off!”
The debate over Christian crosses may be “a sort of backlash against social and cultural changes happening broadly, including immigration,” said Robin Jensen, a theologian and historian who is a leading expert on the cross.
“We’re drawing battle lines around cultural values and some people — who might not even be regular church attendees — are still kind of holding forth on this symbol because for them it represents something of the past when their world was more homogenous,” she said. “Maybe people are feeling this is one way to assert Christianity, some kind of values that they feel they are losing or that the culture is moving quickly away from.”
The cross is ubiquitous today but, surprisingly, it took about four centuries for it to become a common Christian visual symbol, said Jensen, author of The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy.
Fish, anchors, doves, shepherds and sheep were the main early symbols, though the crucifixion had played an important role in the New Testament and the topic was often referred to in later Christian writings.
“It’s hard to say why they were avoiding a visual depiction of the crucifixion” in the early days, Jensen said. “Maybe Christians at first thought it was kind of humiliating, gruesome and embarrassing almost, and so they could talk about it but couldn’t depict it.”
Early crosses, on small pilgrimage objects and in church mosaics, did not feature Christ figures; those started appearing around the beginning of the fifth century. And the first representations of Christ showed him fully clothed in a robe and fairly robust, Jensen said. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Christ is shown as suffering on the cross, the image most commonly seen today.
Squabbles over the symbol have erupted over the years. In the 8th and 9th century, some objected to including a Christ figure on crosses on the grounds that it could lead to idolatry. Three centuries later, the issue was whether Christ should be depicted alive or dead.
Even today there are differences in approach. Catholics favour crucifixes — crosses featuring a figure of Christ’s body, while Protestants tend to use bare crosses with no representation of Christ.
Jensen said the cross and crucifix have been embraced as key Christian symbols in part because they turn an instrument of execution into a symbol of salvation. “It signals triumph and the defeat of death, overcoming death,” she said. “I think it’s a positive symbol and one that’s meant to make you think about life, not death.”
Polls show Quebecers want the National Assembly crucifix to stay right where it is.
In a survey conducted by CROP in November, more than half of respondents — 55 per cent — said the symbol should remain, while 28 per cent wanted it removed. CROP also pointed to “great indifference” to the issue, noting 17 per cent did not have an opinion.
In most categories — men, women, all regions of Quebec and all levels of schooling — a majority of respondents wanted to retain the crucifix. However, younger people are split. Among those age 18 to 34, 42 per cent would conserve it, compared to 40 per cent who wanted it to go.
There’s also a francophone-anglophone split.
In a 2013 Léger poll, 57 per cent of francophones said they agreed with the decision to keep the crucifix in the legislature, versus 36 who wanted it removed. However, anglophones tended to be against the crucifix, especially in Montreal, where 54 per cent of respondents said it was time to remove the symbol.
Bastien is a history teacher at Dawson College, the former Mother House of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame. Many crucifixes remain in that building, as do cross-shaped lamps in the library; a five-metre-tall statue of the Madonna and baby Jesus is perched atop the building’s dome.
“We nonetheless have students of many different religions here,” Bastien said. “Would it make sense to start to remove this — all of these crucifixes and statues in the name of secularism? No.
“Secularism is not about erasing all signs of our Christian or Catholic past — that would be absurd.”
The National Assembly cross is part of Quebec’s heritage, he said. And removing it would be as senseless as removing symbols of the British crown and the royal motto, “Dieu et mon droit,” from above the National Assembly’s Speaker’s chair on the grounds that the Queen is head of the Church of England.
“Secularism is not about dechristianization, which is what Robespierre did (in France) in 1794 in the Reign of Terror,” Bastien said. “Names of streets were re-baptized, Notre-Dame Cathedral was renamed the ‘Temple of Reason.’ It was a large-scale attempt at social re-engineering by erasing totally the roots, the signs, the legacy of the Catholic Church.”
And taking down the National Assembly crucifix cannot be compared to the removal of the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina legislature in 2015, Bastien added. The flag was flown by those who wanted to preserve the enslavement of blacks during the American Civil War.
“I can understand that people found this very offensive,” Bastien said. “To me, you can’t do the same thing with the crucifix. It’s not a symbol of hatred the way the Confederacy flag was or could be seen as still today.”
Jensen, who is American, sees things much differently.
She’s a professor at a Catholic institution — the University of Notre Dame, founded by a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the same order that founded Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory. At her university, crucifixes are in every classroom and just about every office and hallway. Jensen is on a committee looking into replacing mass-produced plastic ones in the university with “better” crucifixes — more interesting pieces of art.
Jensen said she is baffled by supporters of the National Assembly crucifix, including Legault, who suggest it should stay because it’s a historical or heritage item rather than a religious one.
“That seems like a crazy argument to me,” she said. “It is a religious symbol and Christians would say that. I can’t imagine us in the U.S. having one in the Senate or House of Representatives or the courts.”
She added: “It’s surprising to me that someone would make the argument that this is a piece of heritage. It might be, but I could see somebody saying, ‘Fine, put it in a museum if you want to keep it for that reason.’”
In the U.S., debates over religious symbols aren’t over crosses but instead focus on prayers in schools and the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses, Jensen said. Schools are forbidden from initiating or sponsoring prayers. Displays of the commandments outside some American courts have been removed.
The separation of church and state has been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution since the 18th century, forbidding the U.S. government from favouring a religion.
The principle is “about trying to make sure that people aren’t confronted with a religious symbol they find offensive or don’t share, in a public space,” she said.
Jensen said she thinks Christian crosses have no business in public-school classrooms or in legislatures, for the same reason that the prayers she recited when she was a child in school are no longer deemed appropriate.
“Not everybody in the room is Christian or religious,” she said, “so why should we force those prayers on someone who doesn’t share those religious values?”
What would Jesus say about cross controversies?
Jensen gamely started trying to answer that question from a reporter.
“One would have to say, ‘Is this the symbol that Jesus wanted?’ I don’t know the answer to that question. I love the cross, I’m not trying to dis it in any way …” Then Jensen trailed off and paused for a few seconds. “I can’t answer that question, I guess,” she finally said with a laugh. “It’s probably impossible and would get me into trouble.”
Timeline: The cross and Quebec politics tightly intertwined
1792. Quebec’s parliamentary history begins with the first sitting of the Parliament of Lower Canada. There is no prayer or crucifix in the legislature.
1922. The Liberal government of Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau introduces a prayer to be read before every session of the Legislative Assembly, the name used since 1867 (it was renamed the National Assembly in 1968). The Liberal member who proposes the prayer suggests legislators should “ask heaven’s blessing on our deliberations.” Via the prayer, members beseech God to allow them “only to desire what is according to your will, to look for it with prudence, to know it with certainty, and to accomplish it perfectly.”
1936. In one of its first acts, the new Union Nationale government of Premier Maurice Duplessis decides to affix a crucifix above the Speaker’s chair in the Legislative Assembly. In adding the crucifix, the deeply conservative Duplessis is trying to distinguish himself from 39 years of Liberal rule by being more attentive to the Catholic church, historians say. Duplessis’s 18-year reign is known as the “Grande Noirceur” (the great darkness) because it was marked by anti-communism, corruption and human-rights violations. One National Assembly historian has suggested Duplessis may have been influenced by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had placed a crucifix in the Italian legislative chamber 13 years earlier. When Quebec’s legislative crucifix went up, a Trois-Rivières newspaper noted: “For the first time in history, Christ will preside over deliberations in the Legislative Assembly.”
1976. Under Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque, the National Assembly abolishes the opening prayer, replacing it with a moment of reflection. Speaker Clément Richard says the change is being made “out of respect for the members of this Assembly, who are not necessarily all of the same religious denomination.” (The tradition continues in the United Kingdom, where sittings of the House of Commons and the House of Lords still begin with Christian prayers ). Though Quebec had largely turned its back on Catholicism during the post-Duplessis Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the crucifix remains.
1982. During renovations of the National Assembly, the Duplessis crucifix is replaced with a new one, by Quebec artist Romuald Dion, which is still displayed today. Hand-crafted, the cross is made of mahogany, while the figure of Christ, its design inspired by the Shroud of Turin, is in bronze, steel and copper. The Duplessis-era crucifix is lost and some historians speculate it may be gathering dust in an unmarked box in the National Assembly archives.
Late 1990s and early 2000s. Lucien Bouchard, Quebec’s premier from 1996 to 2001, was known for his fits of anger. One of his worst is reported to have come when a minister — André Boisclair — wanted to discuss removing the crucifix from above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. The PQ premier shut him down, telling cabinet he would not be a modern-day Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple who was given permission by Pontius Pilate to bury Jesus.
2002. Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand suggests removing the crucifix that has hung in the council chamber of Montreal’s 19th-century city hall since the early days of Mayor Jean Drapeau’s reign in the 1950s. A pan-Quebec backlash ensues, with some suggesting the crucifix is a heritage item that must remain. Rotrand says the response also includes hundreds of anti-Semitic comments directed at him. In the end, a planned hearing on the issue never takes place and the crucifix is still there. City council had replaced its opening prayer with a moment of reflection in 1987.
2007. After becoming PQ leader, Boisclair says the debate over “reasonable accommodations” for religious minorities is out of control, fuelled by falsehoods, exaggerations and demagoguery. “What I notice is that we are accommodating with one another,” Boisclair tells an interviewer. “I have never seen people question the fact that there is a crucifix above the head of the Speaker of the National Assembly, even though there are Jews and a member of Muslim origin” in the legislature. In his eyes, the crucifix “has no place there.” The comment is widely criticized. Boisclair flip-flops and says the symbol should stay. But the issue resurfaces when scholars Gérard Bouchard (brother of the former premier) and Charles Taylor begin public hearings into reasonable accommodations.
2008. In its final report, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission says the crucifix should go: “In keeping with the notion of the separation of church and state, we believe that the crucifix must be removed from the wall of the National Assembly, which, indeed, is the very place that symbolizes the constitutional state (a reasonable alternative would be to display it in a room devoted to the history of parliament).” The recommendation does not go down well with Quebec’s political class. That same day, the National Assembly passes a unanimous motion affirming Quebecers’ “attachment to our religious and historic heritage represented by the crucifix” in the legislature. Liberal Premier Jean Charest says: “The crucifix is about 350 years of history in Quebec that none of us are ever going to erase and of a very strong presence, in particular, of the Catholic church, and that’s our reality.”
2011. Two Sikhs on their way to present a brief are refused access to the National Assembly because they won’t surrender their kirpans — ceremonial daggers worn by adherents of the religion. The two go to court to contest a National Assembly motion that bans the presence of knives, scissors or other potentially dangerous objects inside the legislature. Quebec courts uphold the legislature’s right to ban the kirpan. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the Sikhs’ appeal, essentially upholding the lower court rulings.
2012. PQ Leader Pauline Marois announces her party, if elected, will impose a charter of secularism that would bar public servants from wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippah or Sikh turban. A crucifix would be allowed as long as it was “discreet.” Marois wins the election with a minority.
2013. Marois’s PQ government unveils a proposed “Charter of Quebec Values,” under which public workers would be prohibited from wearing religious symbols such as kippahs, turbans, burkas, hijabs and “large” crosses at work. After initially insisting the crucifix remain in the National Assembly, the PQ eventually says it would be up to MNAs to decide its fate. One day, three women protesting against the crucifix interrupt question period by baring their breasts and shouting from the legislature’s gallery. Some crucifix defenders note the National Assembly is also filled with references to the British monarch, who holds the title “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.”
2014: The PQ’s charter dies when Philippe Couillard’s Liberals defeat the PQ.
2015: The Supreme Court of Canada rules Saguenay city council must stop opening meetings with a Christian prayer, declaring meetings must be a “neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality.” However, it does not oblige the city to remove the crucifix from the council chamber.
2017. The Couillard government introduces legislation that bans anyone delivering or receiving public services from wearing the niqab, burka or other face covering. However, Couillard says the Assembly crucifix will stay. Meanwhile, after a complaint from the public, a Quebec City hospital removes a crucifix but quickly puts it back up after a dressing down by the health minister, a violent threat and a 13,000-name petition. Couillard approves, saying he does not think “people from other cultures” are bothered to see Christ hanging from a cross in the provincial legislature or in a hospital. “Managing this question of diversity does not mean turning our back to our heritage and our history,” Couillard says. The Québec solidaire political party says it’s in favour of removing the Assembly’s crucifix.
2018. François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec is elected. He says his government will introduce a secularism law in early 2019 under which teachers, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and judges will be prohibited from wearing symbols such as the hijab, kippah, turban and Christian cross. But the Assembly crucifix will remain. “It’s part of our history and I don’t see that as a religious sign. I see that as being part of our history, being part of our values,” he tells reporters. “In our past we had Protestants and Catholics. They built the values we have in Quebec. We have to recognize that and not mix that with religious signs.” Legault’s suggestion that the crucifix isn’t a religious symbol makes international headlines. Asked to comment, Quebec’s Catholic bishops tell the Montreal Gazette: “The crucifix for us is not just a heritage object — it’s a sacred religious object that should be in churches or residences for people of the Catholic faith.”