Montreal to remove crucifix from council chamber and place it in museum – The Globe and Mail

Montreal to remove crucifix from council chamber and place it in museum - The Globe and Mail
National Assembly might follow Montreal in removing crucifix: Legault
More than 80 years after it went up, the crucifix at Montreal City Hall is coming down – a gesture that adds fuel to a raging debate in Quebec over the place of religious symbols in public institutions.

Montreal says it will remove the crucifix from the wall of its council chambers while City Hall undergoes renovations and will not put it back when the work is done in three years.

Its a very important symbol, but I truly believe … that it doesnt have to be in the city council, which is a secular institution, Mayor Valérie Plante said. This is a place where we make decisions.

The move comes in the midst of an emotional discussion in Quebec about limits on religious symbols for public servants. The provincial government of François Legault is promising legislation this spring that would ban people in positions of authority – such as police officers and schoolteachers – from wearing symbols of faith such as hijabs.

The government says it is acting in the name of state religious neutrality – but has refused to remove the large crucifix over the speakers chair in the National Assembly.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal issued a statement Wednesday afternoon which didn't overtly criticize the move but stressed that the crucifix is symbolic of the city's roots and "a love for all humanity."

Montreals decision is likely to put pressure on the province to follow suit. Mr. Legault is facing criticism that his governments ban on religious symbols targets minorities, in particular Muslim women who wear headscarves.

Legault said the decision falls within Quebec's secularism debate, as is the discussion on whether there will be a grandfather clause allowing teachers who already wear religious symbols  to continue doing so. 

Instead of attacking teachers in its new secularism law, the Legault government should take inspiration from the city of Montreal and withdraw the crucifix that hangs in the Salon Bleu of the National Assembly. That is how you advance secularism in Quebec, tweeted Andrés Fontecilla, an MNA with Québec Solidaire.

The CAQ government has been adamant that it will not remove the cross, saying it is a historical symbol, not a religious one, even though it represents the Christian values of the province's two colonial ancestors.

The citys move further accentuates the division between Quebecs largest metropolis and the rest of the province on matters of diversity. The city, which largely shunned Mr. Legaults Coalition Avenir Québec party in last falls provincial election, is home to the overwhelming number of immigrants to Quebec.

Major renovations are about to get underway at City Hall. The crucifix is being removed for the work, but it will not be hung back up when that work is done, in about three years, the executive committee says. 

The crucifix in Montreals council chambers was put up in 1937 at the request of an alderman who said it was meant to remind elected officials of their oaths before God. The chaplain of city firefighters and police officers blessed it after it was affixed to the wall.

The crucifix is an important part of Montreal's heritage and history, but as a symbol, it does not reflect the modern reality of secularism in democratic institutions, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said.

I think everyone agrees today that we are in a different context, said Montreal Councillor Laurence Lavigne Lalonde, who is responsible for the file on the executive committee. We live in a society that has evolved and that is represented by democratic institutions that must be secular, neutral and open.

"There are good arguments for and some arguments against, and right now we have a debate. We have to find a compromise," Legault said. "I accept the decision of the City of Montreal." 

The mayor says the city has no intention of removing the 33-metre-high cross that looms over Montreal from its perch atop Mount Royal. Its not a democratic institution where we make decisions, Ms. Plante said of the iconic mountain.

"The decision is a recognition of the role of secularism in the institution, and for me, there is a stark distinction between individual and institutional secularism," Plante said.

Not everyone at city hall was happy with the decision. Municipal opposition leader Lionel Perez, who wears a kippah – a Jewish head covering – said the decision could sow division and that the city should have held public consultations. He called the crucifix an important symbol of a founding people of Montreal.

Premier François Legault has said he wants to keep the crucifix in the legislature while moving forward with plans to ban certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols.

Still, Montreals move is likely to highlight the contradiction of restricting what public servants can wear while permitting an overt religious symbol in public institutions. In addition to the crucifix at the provincial legislature, there are reportedly numerous crucifixes in courtrooms around the province, and the Quebec government has given no indication that it plans to remove those either. That means a judge could be prohibited from wearing a kippah, turban or hijab, but could preside over a trial beneath a cross.

"For us, it's always been a heritage symbol, a historical symbol like the other religious symbols in the Salon Bleu," Jolin-Barrette said. 

According to La Presse, Mr. Legaults government plans to allow public servants to keep wearing their religious symbols but restrict such displays of faith among future employees. The government also plans to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms, according to the report.

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the National Assembly will make its own decision when it comes to its crucifix. 

The government is showing openness to Montreals move. The Premier said he respects the citys decision and indicated the province might soften its stand on the matter. People have to make compromises. We will look at the positions of different people in caucus and well get back to you, he told reporters.

She said the city has no intention of removing the cross on Mount Royal , since the mountain is not a democratic institution.

The history of the crucifix at the National Assembly underscores Quebeckers complex relationship with Roman Catholicism. Residents of the province have largely abandoned religious observance, but seem to remain culturally attached to the faith.

In fact, Ms. Plante took the trouble of informing Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine of the citys decision before announcing it to the public. In a statement, Archbishop Lépine said the decision belonged to elected officials.

[The crucifix] symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions, he said in a statement. Nothing forbids us, and our respective beliefs, from being present in the public space in an attitude of respect and openness, since we share the same common humanity.

Montreals executive committee announced on Wednesday that the crucifix in city hall will be taken down during the buildings upcoming renovation.

A crucifix will also be removed from the Peter-McGill Room at City Hall, the executive committee said.

On the same day the city of Montreal announced it will remove the crucifix that hangs in the council chamber at city hall, Quebec Premier François Legault for the first time said the provincial government might remove the crucifix from the National Assembly in Quebec City.

It is a reversal of a position the government has held for months. Legault repeatedly maintained that the crucifix, which has been affixed above the Speakers chair in the National Assembly since 1936, would stay because the government considers it a historic artifact and not a religious symbol.

Crucifixes in government buildings have been part of the debate over religious symbols in Quebec. Some argue there is a contradiction between the province forbidding public servants from wearing visible religious symbols like the hijab or kippa while keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly.

During an executive council meeting on Wednesday morning, city councillor Laurence Lavigne-Lalonde said the crucifix would be removed due to renovations to the building, but would not be rehung after the work is done. Renovations aimed at modernizing city hall are set to begin on the building next month.

In Montreal, executive-committee member Laurence Lavigne Lalonde, responsible for democracy and governance, announced the crucifix’s removal from council chamber during Wednesday’s executive-committee meeting.

The administration will move out of city hall on April 15 for three years while the historic building is renovated. Lavigne Lalonde said the move was a good opportunity to remove the crucifix, to reflect the city’s secular status.

The place of religious symbols within government has been a hotly contested one in Quebec. The Coalition Avenir Quebec provincial government has announced plans to table a bill that would ban people in positions of authority from wearing symbols such as a hijab or kippah.

“We have to understand that the crucifix was installed in a context, in an era that was completely different from the one we live in today,” she said.

The city hall decision garnered mixed reaction in Quebec City. Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who introduced the religious symbols bill, said the National Assembly would not follow suit by removing its own crucifix.

Mayor Valérie Plante said the removal of the cross does not imply a lack of respect for Quebec’s religious heritage.

I say we still have discussions and nothing is decided and I ask you to be patient very soon in the next few weeks, he said. We will table our full position on this issue.

“We’re in a place in time where it is important to remember that our institutions are secular,” she said, adding that the religious neutrality of democratic institutions was “absolutely crucial.”

But that doesn’t mean we should eliminate beloved landmarks associated with religion, she said.

Given the crucifixs historical value, city officials said they would like at options such as keeping it in a museum-like portion of city hall once it reopens.

“We don’t intend to take away the cross on Mount Royal. It’s not a democratic institution where we make decisions,” she said.

The crucifix was installed during an era that was completely different than the one we live in today, said Lavigne-Lalonde during the meeting.

In a statement, Montreal archbishop Christian Lépine said the cross has been integral to the citys history since founder Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve erected one on Mount Royal in 1643. He noted that it was installed at city hall in 1937 “to recognize our history and our roots.”

The cross was hung in city hall in 1937 as a reminder to municipal politicians that their decisions should be guided by God.

While it’s up to elected officials to make the decision, Lépine said “the crucifix remains a living symbol (that) symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions” and that Montrealers can be proud of its legacy.

The crucifix was hung at the initiative of alderman Joseph-Émile Dubreuil, a member of Montreal city council from 1932-1954 and later a Liberal member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly. It was meant to remind councillors that they had sworn an oath before God, Lavigne Lalonde said.

“Now we live in a society that has evolved enormously and is represented by institutions that are democratic and that must be secular, neutral and open to all citizens,” she said.

When city hall, at 275 Notre-Dame St., reopens in three years, the crucifix will be displayed in a small museum in the renovated building along with other artifacts from the city’s collection, Lavigne Lalonde said.

“There will be a museum space where these elements can be highlighted, where we can contextualize them, and they will also be accessible to all Montrealers and other visitors,” she said.

After his election in 1986, the late mayor Jean Doré abolished the prayer at the beginning of council meetings, replacing it with a moment of silence. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the town of Saguenay could not open meetings with a prayer, saying the custom infringed on freedom of conscience and religion.

There was talk of removing the crucifix the last time Montreal’s city hall was renovated, in 1992, but it did not happen.

“What we have done today is that we have just closed this chapter of our history, but with the objective of highlighting this important part of our history and also reaffirming the secular character of our institution,” Lavigne Lalonde said.

Opposition Leader Lionel Perez slammed the decision, saying the city should have held public consultations first.

Perez wears a kippa and has often defended the right to wear religious symbols, but he declined to say whether he thinks the crucifix should stay or go.

In an interview with Le Devoir in 2013, he said the crucifix would eventually be taken down but there was no need to rush.

“Where’s the urgency? What’s this rush to be able to make this decision?” he said Wednesday, predicting it would divide Montrealers.

Plante said the decision does not affect the city’s 19 boroughs, many of which already don’t have a crucifix.

Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, said the city should have requested an expert opinion from the Conseil du patrimoine de Montreal, an advisory body on heritage, before making the decision.

After saying he respects Montreal’s decision, Legault opened the door to removing the crucifix in the National Assembly.

“Listen, everyone has to compromise,” Legault said. “We will look at the positions of different persons at caucus.”

Asked directly if the removal of the crucifix is part of the current debate over the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s secularism bill, Legault said the subject is on the table.

“Regarding our position, you know very well very soon, in the next few weeks, we will table a bill and this is part of the discussions we’re having right now. There are good arguments (for leaving the crucifix in place), and some arguments against,” Legault said.

“Right now we have a debate. We have to find a compromise, same thing with the grandfather clause.”

But Legault said the government has made no decision on the idea of introducing a clause in the soon-to-be-tabled secularism bill allowing existing public-sector employees in positions of authority to wear symbols.

“I say we still have discussions,” Legault said. “Nothing is decided. I ask you to be patient.”

But at about the same time in another part of the legislature, Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister Simon Join-Barrette said the government’s position on the crucifix had not changed.

“We take notice of the city of Montreal’s decision,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters. “Montreal takes its own decisions. We take our own decisions. The crucifix is there. For us it was always a heritage symbol, a historic symbol like other religious symbols in the blue room.”

The 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission on accommodating religious minorities called on the National Assembly to take down the crucifix and move it elsewhere in the building.

The assembly flatly rejected that Bouchard-Taylor recommendation, unanimously passing a motion affirming Quebecers’ “attachment to our religious and historic heritage represented by the (legislature’s) crucifix.”

Premier Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale government installed the crucifix in 1936 to affirm its ties to the Catholic Church.

In 1976, under Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque, the National Assembly abolished its opening prayer, replacing it with a moment of reflection.

In 1982, during renovations to the National Assembly, the crucifix was replaced with a new one that is still displayed today.

Two years ago, Quebec City’s Hôpital du Saint-Sacrement restored a crucifix it had removed from its front hall after protest by Quebec City’s archbishop and a public outcry.

In October, Quebec Justice Minister Sonia LeBel said that despite the government’s plans to bar judges from wearing religious symbols, the crucifixes still hanging in a dozen courthouses across the province should remain because they are part of Quebec’s history.