Before discussing the technicalities of Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), I think it is important to know where it came from. Understanding its genesis will not only help frame the discussion of the judgment and its implications, it’s an interesting story in its own right about a fellow unbeliever standing up for our rights.
Our story begins in the Québec ville of Saguenay.
Saguenay is the only independent city in the region of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. The population of the city itself is around 147,000, which is roughly half the population of the entire region. The entire metropolitan area comes to around 157,000, making it the fifth largest in Québec – not far behind Sherbrooke and just ahead of Trois-Rivières.
Saguenay and its surrounding areas are frequently called the most beautiful place in Québec. It’s even a popular cruise destination. The area has a very unique structure and ecosystem. The Saguenay Fjord allows the colder, saltier water of the Atlantic Ocean to mix with the warmer, less salty water of Lac St. Jean. The less dense lake water floats on top of the colder sea water, creating an oasis of warmth in the Saguenay estuary. Beluga whales breed in the deeper, colder water – whale watching is a popular pastime.
Historically, the main business in the area was trade, logging, and the paper and pulp industry, but after the Great Depression, the focus shifted to exploiting its ideal location to become a centre of trade and commerce. More recently, there has been a shift toward research and technology.
In 2002, the ruling Parti Québécois, under Lucien Bouchard, instituted a province-wide policy of amalgamating smaller municipalities into larger cities. The cities of Chicoutimi, Jonquière, La Baie, and Laterrière, and the municipalities of Shipshaw and Lac-Kénogami, as well as part of the township of Tremblay and two unincorporated areas were all merged together to form the new city. There was a vote for what to name it, and edging out Chicoutimi by just 3,471 votes out of 68,149 was the name: Saguenay. At the time, the mass amalgamations were very unpopular, and arguably led to the 2003 victory for Jean Charest’s Québec Liberal Party. After referendums the following year, several of the amalgamations were undone, but the new city of Saguenay survived.
The population of Saguenay is very homogenous. The population of visible minorities is less than 2.5%, 1.7% of which are aboriginal. In the 2001 census, 84.2% identified their ethnicity as Canadian (or French-Canadian), 9.9% identified as French, and 1.7% identified as Québécois – that’s 95.8%. 98.1% are native francophones. Around 96% identify as Roman Catholic – only 3% are “none”s. Saguenay is ground zero for the separatist movement; Lucien Bouchard is actually a native of Chicoutimi.
Around 2006 a resident of the Chicoutimi borough of Saguenay named Alain Simoneau developed an interest in municipal politics.
I’m not going to give much detail about Simoneau personally, because he has already been – for almost a decade – the target of a series of harassment campaigns, including threats and intimidation. I think he’s suffered more than enough, so I’ll avoid any details that might make his harassers’ jobs easier.
Simoneau started attending municipal meetings sometime in 2006. At roughly the same time he started to take a more active interest in freethought – in atheism and secularism. Though he had previously identified as Roman Catholic, he left the faith at around the age of 14.
The Saguenay council meetings alternated between the former city halls of the former municipalities of Chicoutimi, Jonquière, and La Baie. Sometime in 2006, Simoneau started attending city council meetings as part of the citizen audience. Every meeting began the same way. The Councillors would enter one-by-one as their names were called. Once they were all present, they would all stand – as would most of the audience – and the Mayor would make the sign of the cross and say into the microphone: « Au nom du Père, du Fils et du Saint-Esprit… » (“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”). Then he would recite the following prayer:
« Ô Dieu, éternel et tout puissant, de qui vient tout pouvoir et toute sagesse, nous voici assemblés en votre présence pour assurer le bien et la prospérité de notre ville.
Accordez-nous, nous vous en supplions, la lumière et l’énergie nécessaires pour que nos délibérations soient destinées à promouvoir l’honneur et la gloire de votre saint nom et le bonheur spirituel et matériel de notre ville. »
(“Oh God, eternal and all-powerful, from whom comes all power and all wisdom, we are here assembled in your presence to ensure the welfare and prosperity of our ville.
Grant us, we beseech you, the light and the energy necessary that our deliberations may be destined to promote the honour and the glory of your holy name, and spiritual and material happiness for our ville.”)
(Note: all translations, unless otherwise specified, are my own. Please take them with a grain of salt.)
The Mayor would then again make the sign of the cross, and say: « ainsi soit-il » (“Let it be so/Amen”).
Simoneau felt very uncomfortable during these rituals, which he felt were unnecessarily religious, and completely exclusionary to him (and anyone else who wasn’t Catholic). No one ever singled him out, of course, even though he (and some others) remained seated while the Mayor and Councillors and most of the audience prayed. The doors remained open so he could have left at any time, or arrived later. Nevertheless, he liked to come early to get a good seat, and didn’t feel comfortable leaving his coat on the chair to “hold” it then going outside to wait until the prayer was over – or, of course, sitting there sticking out like a sore thumb while everyone else prayed.
So on December 4, 2006, he asked 3 questions of the council, and with his third question, Simoneau asked the Mayor to stop the practice of praying before council meetings.
It’s time to introduce the first villain of our story, and if you feel it is unfair to refer to him in this way… just you wait.
The Mayor of Saguenay was, and still is, Jean Tremblay. He had been mayor of Chicoutimi from 1997, and became mayor when Saguenay was amalgamated in 2002. When it comes to city management business, by all accounts it seems that he’s quite a good mayor. He was a driving force for amalgamation, and since then built Saguenay up to support a next-generation technological economy. He has apparently also been quite effective at trimming the fat and running a very efficient city. He’s a bit of a celebrity mayor in Québec – in 2009 he was ranked third most popular mayor in the media, after Régis Labeaume of Québec and Gérald Tremblay of Montréal.
On the other hand, he’s a complete asshole.
Just about all media coverage of the man will take pains to describe him as either “controversial” or “colourful”, but those are, of course, just polite news euphemisms for “asshole”. I could easily pick a half-dozen or so incidents from his storied career to highlight what raging asshole he is. But frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to put that much effort into it, and at any rate, I figured my case would be more dramatically illustrated by just taking the most recent example (at the time I was researching this post, back in late May/early June 2015), whatever that may be… because there are so freaking many, and more coming all the time. And lo, I didn’t even know about this one – it didn’t make it into my news feeds – but his latest gaffe at the time was just a couple weeks old. Brace yourself.
Remember when I said that Saguenay is one of the most beautiful areas of Québec? Tremblay says: fuck that – there’s fuel in them there fjords to be mined! In a video posted on YouTube, Tremblay called for action against Greenpeace and the “intellectuals of this world”.
Wait! That’s not the gaffe! I mean, that is a gaffe, but it’s not the most recent gaffe.
During a radio interview the following week, Tremblay did not back down from his bizarre YouTube rant. Instead he tried to defend his comments. He was standing up to Greenpeace, he explained, because he was fighting for all the people in the logging and paper industries who work… wait for it… « comme des nègres ». (Loosely translated, “like slaves”… but I’m pretty sure every Canadian knows enough French to spot the highly racial etymology of the word.)
Oh, snap. That’s pretty bad. But wait, maybe you’re thinking I’m being unfair. Maybe the phrase just slipped out, and he immediately corrected himself.
Nope. he doubled down, and tried to justify his comments by saying:
Because a black person works hard, we know that. They don’t have a big salary, and they work hard those people. That’s what I mean. I pity those people.
And here’s the kicker. When representatives of groups that speak out against racism were asked for comment, they just shrugged it off as just par for the course where Tremblay is concerned. Dude, seriously… if you’re a person with as high a media profile as Tremblay… and you make comments that flagrantly racist on live radio… and the watchdogs for racism in your province just chuckle and shake their heads and wave it off as you just being you… that’s a pretty clear sign that you are a massive freaking racist.
Anyway, I could make a whole blog just about racist, underhanded, or ignorant shit Jean Tremblay has done, so let’s not get too bogged down there. We’ll be seeing plenty more of his assholishness as our current story unfolds.
One thing about Tremblay I haven’t mentioned thus far is that he’s big into Catholicism. Like, he’s written books on it. Literally. (Rough English translation of title: “Believing changes everything: Why does faith transform life?”.) So given that fact, and the fact that he’s an asshole – and knowing where this story is ultimately going to end up – you can predict Tremblay’s response to Simoneau’s request. He refused.
Simoneau did not act right away. He continued to attend meetings, waiting to see if the Mayor would change his mind. But he didn’t, of course. So on 28 March 2007, Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) filed a formal complaint with Québec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Commission for human rights and youth rights) on Simoneau’s behalf. The complaint specifically referred to the wording of the prayer, and the context of its recital, and claimed that Simoneau’s freedom of conscience and religion were being infringed by the discriminatory practice. The complaint asked for the prayer to cease, and for all religious symbols to removed from the city halls.
I’m going to take another brief interlude here to explain how human rights complaints are handled in Québec – although bear in mind I’m speaking from the point of view of how they do it federally, and noting that Québec is similar. You have two options, basically, for pursuing a human rights complaint. You can take it directly to the courts, or you can go through the Human Rights Commission (CHRC federally, CDPDJ in Québec). If you choose the courts, it’s basically just like any other civil suit.
If you choose to use the Human Rights Commission, you begin by filing a complaint with them. The Commission at this point is analogous to the police in a criminal situation – they do an investigation and try to resolve the problem, and, if necessary, refer it to the Human Rights Tribunal. This is somewhat analogous to ‘filing charges’, because once it goes to the Tribunal, it’s out of the Commission’s hands, and the Commission may give evidence and testimony at the Tribunal hearing. Once the Tribunal makes a ruling, it’s mandatory, same as a regular court ruling.
Whether you chose the courts or the Commission/Tribunal route, once the ruling is made it can be appealed at an appellate court (the Federal Court of Appeal, or the Court of Appeal in Québec), and then that court’s decision can be appealed at a superior court, all the way up to the Supreme Court. But there is a difference in the standards of review applied during the appeals. Court decisions are more rigorously reviewed, meaning it’s more likely the ruling will be overturned.
So Simoneau and MLQ filed their complaint, and the Commission announced the start of its investigation in February 2008. However, it said that it would only be investigating the prayer – it would not consider the religious symbols in public buildings. (That will be relevant in later instalments.) It concluded its investigation in May, and informed Simoneau that it had gathered enough evidence to make a case before the Tribunal. But at the same time, it said it wouldn’t be handling the Tribunal case itself. The reason was that it had just recently handled a very similar case (presumably the Laval case, which also ruled against prayer), so there was no point in duplicating its efforts. Besides, it pointed out that Simoneau, with the MLQ backing him, was more than capable of bringing the case forward himself.
Simoneau and the MLQ decided to do just that. They filed their case with the Tribunal des droits de la personne on 22 July 2008.
Now here’s where things get a little more complicated.
First, it should be noted that even though it took months and months for the Commission to convene and then complete its investigation, the parties involved weren’t sitting still. On 15 January 2007 – shortly after he first asked the city to stop its prayer – Simoneau formalized his atheism and his abandonment of his Catholic upbringing by committing apostasy. (This was back before the Catholic Church stopped accepting letters of apostasy in 2010.) Also sometime in 2007, Jean Tremblay published Mémoire sur les accommodements raisonnables (“Report on reasonable accommodation”). It’s not clear to me whether that was actually due to Simoneau’s actions, but the timing is pretty telling, I’d say.
But the big change that happened during this period was that the Mayor realized the shit was about to hit the fan. So to try to avoid a Tribunal case that he must have realized he had little chance of winning, he and the other Councillors passed a by-law (VS–R-2008-40) on 3 November 2008. The by-law included several provisions to make it clear that the prayer wasn’t intended to be coercive – most notably a two-minute delay after the end of the prayer before starting the actual business, so that people who had left the room for the prayer had time to return. It also specified the following wording, which was supposed to be more “non-denominational”:
« Dieu tout puissant, nous Te remercions des nombreuses grâces que Tu as accordées à Saguenay et à ses citoyens, dont la liberté, les possibilités d’épanouissement et la paix. Guide-nous dans nos délibérations à titre de membre du conseil municipal et aide-nous à bien prendre conscience de nos devoirs et responsabilités. Accorde-nous la sagesse, les connaissances et la compréhension qui nous permettront de préserver les avantages dont jouit notre ville afin que tous puissent en profiter et que nous puissions prendre de sages décisions.
(“Almighty God, we render thanks unto You for the numerous blessings that You have accorded to Saguenay and its citizens, including freedom, possibilities for flourishing and peace. Guide us in our deliberations as members of municipal council and help us to be conscientious of our duties and responsibilities. Grant us the wisdom, the knowledge, the and understanding to allow us to preserve the advantages enjoyed by our city for all to enjoy and so that we may make wise decisions.
More than likely, Tremblay was trying to avoid what happened in the 1999 Ontario Superior Court case Freitag v Penetanguishene. In that case, the court ruled against the city because the prayer was explicitly Christian. Five years later, in the similar 2004 case Allen v Renfrew (County), that same court ruled for the county, specifically noting that they did that because the prayer
conveyed a religious, but not specifically Christian, message. I’ll talk more about those cases in a later instalment, but you can see that it’s likely that the message Tremblay got out of them in 2008 was that he could have his prayer if he just made it less obviously Christian.
It’s important to mention that while the wording of the prayer in the by-law was claimed to be for the purpose of making the whole affair more ecumenical, Tremblay continued to cross himself before and after. Simoneau even got a video of him on 9 November 2009 saying « Au nom du Père, du Fils et du Saint-Esprit » (“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”) and – along with some of the other councillors – crossing himself.
Before this by-law, the prayer was just an informal “tradition”. The by-law enshrined it as procedure. At the same time, it made Simoneau’s case weaker and harder to win by camouflaging the underlying blatant Christianity of the prayer behind ecumenical baffle-gab. That was its intention, of course – to make government prayer more official, and harder for dissenters to justify scrapping.
Simoneau and MLQ amended their filing to request that the Tribunal declare the by-law inoperative and invalid.
It probably won’t surprise readers of this blog that Simoneau found himself the target of a campaign of harassment. People starting making nasty comments to him, even at work, after his story hit the papers. He started getting threatening phone calls – some of them with call display showing the caller as « l’institut biblique » (“the bible institute”). One caller told him: « On ne te lâchera pas tant que tu ne retireras pas ta plainte. » (“You will not be left alone until you withdraw your complaint.”) At least one person was actually convicted of harassment for a series of telephone pranks, including impersonating Simoneau while making calls to local businesses, and leaving harassing messages on Simoneau’s voice mail. At least one other was investigated but managed to avoid criminal charges for technical reasons, though the police said there was enough evidence for a civil suit. In one case, after he took his car to a car wash, he found little crosses inside with messages like: « Simoneau », « le converti », « Simoneau, le catholique », and « le citoyen d’abord » (“Simoneau”, “the converted”, “Simoneau, the Catholic”, “the citizen first”).
Creepy, eh? Simoneau still went to council meetings, but he started parking his car in different places.
While these kinds of tales of Christian “love” probably won’t surprise any readers of this blog, what may surprise you is how much of the harassment was directly instigated by the Mayor and his fellow councillors. Remember, I told you he was an asshole, right? Well, here comes the fact train.
Tremblay never had any reservations about using his platform to trumpet his position to call out Simoneau and publicly shame him, or to raise and use money from public channels in the court fight (the Human Rights Tribunal estimated that he’d used over $36,000 of public money, and that was only at the Tribunal stage – that wouldn’t include the later costs for the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court hearings). In a meeting on 19 December 2007, he was caught on video responding to a question Simoneau raised about a municipal capital expenditure plan with the following:
« C’est la journée du budget là. Allez fêter Noël, je sais que vous allez fêter ça avec plaisir, allez fêter Noël puis on verra. C’est tout. En passant, c’est Monsieur Simoneau, c’est lui qui est en opposition avec moi pour la question de la prière. Il faut que vous sachiez un petit peu pourquoi il est animé comme ça là, c’est lui qui a fait déposer la plainte pour la question de la prière. »
(“This is budget day. Go celebrate Christmas, I know you’re going to celebrate it with pleasure, go celebrate Christmas then we’ll see. That’s all. By the way, this is Mr. Simoneau, this is the one who is in opposition with me over the question of the prayer. You all should know a little about why he is so animated, that’s the guy who filed a complaint about the question of the prayer.”)
In addition to the social costs, and the costs to his sanity from being paranoid all the time, Simoneau and MLQ also took on a fair bit of debt. Tremblay, of course, never had any problems raising money – not least because he was using public channels to do so.
In the end, though, after a long, long battle and years of harassment and debt, on 9 February 2011 the Human Rights Tribunal in Québec ruled in favour of Simoneau and MLQ. The city was ordered not only to stop prayer at city meetings, they were ordered to remove religious symbols from official spaces. The by-law was also struck down.
Of course, the story doesn’t quite end there.
Two years later, on 27 May 2013, the Québec Court of Appeal completely dismissed the Tribunal’s ruling, and substituted its own – this time allowing the revised prayer in the by-law. And that’s the point that this became a federal case, of interest to all of Canada.
Happily the Supreme Court opted to hear the case, and – as we all know – 15 April 2015, it said the Québec Court of Appeal had been wrong to dismiss the Tribunal’s ruling and substitute its own. It did modify the original ruling very slightly – in addition to some legal nuance about the by-law being invalid, it dropped the ruling requiring the removal of religious symbols. However, it did uphold the ruling against prayer in government meetings, and strengthened it significantly.
It took almost a decade-long fight, and there’s no doubt it was draining for Alain Simoneau. Not just figuratively, literally in financial terms. And of course he faced years of harassment and intimidation, while a popular Mayor used his power to manipulate the media to turn him into a pariah.
I wanted to tell this story because it’s easy to forget that while it did have a happy ending, it wasn’t an easy fight by any means. I didn’t want Simoneau’s contribution to be forgotten, or dismissed as meaningless. This guy put up with almost ten years of shit, all for our benefit.
If you ever meet Alain Simoneau, raise your glass or tip your hat to the guy – he is a Canadian hero.