Church’s unity role hotly debated

Published July 1, 1998

The “s” words were not officially supposed to be part of the discussions on nation and identity during General Synod, but it didn’t take long for them to come up; the “s” words being separation and sovereignty.

They were first uttered by Serge Menard, Quebec’s minister of justice.

The wide-ranging discussions of nation and identity at synod also heard from a number of prominent Canadians, including Claude Ryan, who called on church leaders to become more active in the unity debate.

Mr. Ménard took delegates by surprise during a dinner speech. Many expected him to deliver a short welcoming address, but he went on for nearly 40 minutes, irritating some delegates by speaking frankly about his belief in sovereignty.

“We do not hate Canada or Canadians, ” Mr. Menard said. “Our problem is with the Canadian Constitution.

“Quebecers are like a girl who would like to accept her lover’s marriage proposal, but she can’t stand his mother … the would-be bride would have to deny her own identity to marry him.”

As Mr. Ménard expounded his political beliefs, some delegates began ignoring him, choosing instead to talk among themselves, almost drowning him out.

An angry Archbishop Michael Peers rose at the end of Mr. Ménard’s speech and said he would not speak until everyone was silent. Recalling the English-only character of the church in Montreal and its privileged position in society 40 years ago, the Primate said he would never choose to return to those days.

It was a controversial beginning to synod discussions of what it means to be Canadian. Two days later, Andrew Hutchison, Bishop of Montreal, took a less partisan approach, focusing on the history of Quebec in the last few decades.

Bishop Hutchison contended church leaders should not take a stand against the separatists.

“How we choose to organize ourselves for our collective security and well-being is a political question that must be settled by voters at the ballot box.

“It is my view, therefore, that the church has no business aligning itself with the Yes or the No side of a referendum.”

Later that evening, two prominent politicians disagreed with Bishop Hutchison during a five-member panel discussion.

Claude Ryan, former leader of the Liberal party in Quebec and spokesman for the No side during the 1980 referendum, said, “I would like to see our religious leaders intervene in our debates more frequently and more vigorously when matters of principle are clearly at stake … I hope that the church will play a more active role in the search for solutions.”

Mr. Ryan’s comments were echoed by Liberal Senator Ann Cools, moderator of the evening’s discussion.

“I see enormous cowardice,” said Senator Cools, decrying what she sees as a lack of leadership across the country in the national unity debate.

“Until we can get in touch with the principles that formed (Canada), we shall continue to go astray.” She said the church “must intervene more forcibly in the problems of our country.”

“If Quebec goes, we will drift apart, ” warned Brian Smith, a former cabinet minister in British Columbia and current chairman of BC Hydro and Power Authority.

“We will go into orbit and be pulled into the United States. I don’t want to live in a country where the poor are not taken care of … We’ve got to stay together.”

Panelist Joan Fraser, a former editor of the Montreal Gazette for 18 years, said there are “mutual perceptions of prejudice across a depressing divide,” adding that the problem is illustrated by polls which indicate many Quebecers feel they don’t get enough respect from English Canada.

Polls show English Canadians think Quebecers get more than enough respect.

“Reconciliation is essential to the future of this country, ” said Ms. Fraser, “but we’re not going to get there if we require people to give up who they are.”

Rod Gillis, archdeacon of Cape Breton, complained cutbacks and erosion of services across the country are damaging our sense of identity.

He said Canadians must “demand that national institutions, including church structures, serve the regions more adequately … .

“Reconciliation is possible only when the features of regional and cultural exile are transformed by a lasting solidarity which has regard for people and their culture.”

Matthew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree, expressed anger that Europeans and the church showed little respect for native peoples and cultures when they settled North America.

“With few exceptions, except when it was convenient, they did not see religions and ways of life that had existed on these lands since creation. Instead they saw resources they wanted to take. Canadians are still immersed in this process. Sadly, to some extent, this still includes the churches.”

While some delegates said they were confused as to why the issues of nation and identity were on the agenda at all, others said they were pleased to see such a calm discussion of a politically hot topic.


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