ALUMNUS PROFILE: Q&A WITH DR. EMILY LAXER

By Shannon Clarke

May 9, 2019

In her new book, Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Québec (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), EPS alumnus Dr. Emily Laxer challenges the tendency, including among social scientists, to take national public discourses on immigration and national identities at face value. Based in part on her doctoral thesis, Dr. Laxer focuses here on the debates over secularism and the accommodation of Muslim religious practices and dress in France and Quebec. She shows that while both places have much in common, the debates over the place of religion in public life have as much to do with the distinctive dynamics of political party competition for power and legitimacy as with traditions of secularism and national identity. While politicians on the right- and left of France’s class-based system invoke secularism in the face of rising ultra-right influence, the endurance of Quebec’s “national question” inspires disparate narratives of secularism in the province. Using historical evidence and interviews with politicians and activists, Dr. Laxer considers the mechanics of partisan conflict and the ways in which political actors construct the secular state at the expense of those whose identities are made the subject of public, (trans)national debate.

After receiving her doctorate in sociology from the University of Toronto in 2015 with extensive involvement in the graduate collaborative specialization in Ethnic and Pluralism Studies, Dr. Laxer held a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, and in 2018 was appointed Assistant Professor of Sociology at Glendon College, York University. Shannon Clarke interviewed her about Unveiling the Nation, her post-doctoral career, and the challenge of studying the ever-evolving issue of secularism in Quebec.

Dr Laxer’s book is winner of the 2020 John Porter Book Award of the Canadian Sociology Association. She also was featured on ‘The Agenda’ with Steve Paikin on Oct. 31, 2019 discussing the “The Return of the Bloc Québécois” (See episode here)

TO CONDUCT RESEARCH OF THIS SCOPE AND COMPLEXITY MUST BE VERY DIFFICULT. CAN YOU TELL ME HOW YOU BECAME INTERESTED IN THIS SUBJECT, AND WHAT THE PROCESS OF DOING THE RESEARCH WAS LIKE?

I came to U of T to pursue my doctoral degree and I became more broadly interested in immigration and policies in immigration. How do states and nations respond to the growing size of their minority populations? How do they reckon with the cultural dimensions of that? What role does race also play? I was initially planning to study these questions through Quebec’s 2007-2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission on religious accommodation because I was so familiar with the context. I’d just completed my Master’s degree at McGill and had attended two of the Commission’s “town hall” gatherings. But at the time that I was writing my doctoral dissertation proposal – in 2010 – France was passing a law prohibiting the wearing of the niqab and the burqa in public spaces. I spent a lot of time in France as a child; I lived in France with my family for three and a half years on different occasions, and attended the public-school system there, so I was familiar with the context. I was bilingual. I had spent some time there and I was relatively familiar with the history and republican political culture. So, I decided to do some interviews with politicians and activists who were, at that time, still very much in the throes of the debate over Islamic veiling.

I went to France to conduct those interviews just a couple of years after the 2010 law banning the niqab and burqa was passed. I spent a few months in Paris on three different occasions and cold-called politicians on the right and on the left of the political spectrum. I met with them in their offices and just asked these really naïve sounding questions: “Well what is this all about?” “You know, I hear these words being thrown around in this debate; I hear laïcité, I hear republicanism, I hear women’s equality, I hear women’s dignity.” There was so much language and vocabulary around these laws and I wanted to understand what was underneath all of that. So, I posed myself as the naïve, innocent, young Canadian student who could ask these basic questions, and this allowed me to then understand a bit more about the underlying motivations for laws prohibiting (mainly Islamic) religious signs. And what I ultimately came to discover, which became the basis of my dissertation, was that so much of the debate around these laws had to do with party political conflict and competition and that the issue of Muslim women’s religious rights and their belonging to the body politic was driven by a whole bunch of other political factors, including the rise of the ultra-right, and including the shifting dynamics of class and the role of class in electoral politics.

WHAT WERE YOUR MAJOR FINDINGS AND DID THEY SURPRISE YOU?

I was surprised by the very strange mix of certainty and uncertainty that was being expressed by political actors in this debate. They very much framed the 2010 law, and the law that preceded it in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of religious signs by students in schools, as the bases of a by-partisan consensus. They presented these laws as being the inevitable logical outcomes of a historical process beginning with the French Revolution and that history of almost 250 years seemed so fresh in the minds of politicians. But, at the same time as they were eager to present this consensus, it was obvious to me in digging further that there was no such consensus. That instead there was a desire to project the notion of agreement around what these terms meant and what needed to be done but beneath the surface was a huge amount of contestation.

DID PEOPLE BUY THAT RIGHT AWAY? DID THEY NEED TO BE CONVINCED?

The polls show that a majority of French citizens were in favour of this law in 2010 and that they’re very positively disposed toward the previous law in 2004. This suggests that public opinion largely aligns with this political move by the major parties. But my way of theorizing the relationship between politics and public opinion is informed by a thesis within the political sociological literature called political articulation. It is based on the idea that political parties don’t simply reflect existing beliefs within a population; they actually frame those beliefs and do so strategically in order to mobilize them for their political gain. So, I see the public’s response to Islamic veiling and the political articulations around this issue as in a kind of constant dialectic in which parties fashion a set of interpretations that either do or do not get picked up in public opinion.

HOW WERE YOU RECEIVED AS SOMEONE FROM OUTSIDE OF FRANCE DOING THIS RESEARCH?

I think they were positively disposed towards me. The relationship France has historically had with Quebec is a positive one, if at times one that is – on the French side — informed by a kind of colonial understanding of Quebec society. And I’m not Quebecois, but I lived in Quebec and speak French well enough that I was perceived as being Quebecois by many of the politicians I interviewed. So, I think that gave me a kind of unique positionality that I used to my advantage. I wasn’t seen as someone who had a stake in this debate. I think I was seen as someone who was simply trying to learn more about the basics of French politics and this debate over religious signs. That enabled me to elicit more honest, and candid — really candid — answers from politicians. They didn’t assume any prior knowledge or understanding on my part, so they would elucidate to me in a straightforward way what was going on and what conflicts they were having with one another. I think that helped a lot.

YOU SAY YOU WERE PERCEIVED AS SOMEONE WHO DIDN’T HAVE A STAKE IN THIS DEBATE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE A STAKE IN THIS?

I think I have a stake in this debate to the extent that anyone living in these societies has a stake in them. One of the things that came through in my research is that these debates are ostensibly about a minority population and they target minority religious groups in a way that I think inhibits rather than encourages belonging and membership and active involvement in a society. But I also have a stake as a citizen of the world where these debates reflect more broadly on the way that states are choosing to define the parameters of citizenship and membership. These decisions have broad implications. So, I do, certainly; there’s no neutrality.

IT SEEMS THAT THESE DEBATES AND QUESTIONS IN QUEBEC ENABLE CANADIANS TO SAY THAT THIS IS A QUEBEC PROBLEM. I’M WONDERING WHAT YOU SEE AS PROBLEMATIC ABOUT LOOKING AT THIS RHETORIC AND THIS DEBATE AS UNIQUE TO QUEBEC. DOES THAT OBSCURE WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE COUNTRY?

Absolutely. I was struck, just as anyone else was during the debate over the Charter of Values in 2013, by the way that English-Canadian newspapers were representing this story. “We in multicultural Canada don’t have this reaction,” was the way it was being framed and Quebec was being singled out as a uniquely intolerant part of the country. This is a misrepresentation and it reflects a larger problem in the literature on this topic. There is a tendency in that literature to take the outcome of a political debate – which is highly contingent on a whole bunch of other things – and interpret that outcome as indicative of a historical trend. In other words, there is a way in which studies project a kind of historicity onto contemporary state policies around religious minorities and then draw conclusions about the populations within the countries involved. This is misleading. Indeed, what becomes clear when you look at the underlying on-the-ground political processes at play in these debates is that they can go in so many different directions. The outcomes are not knowable a priori. There are certain factors that we can look to, to predict where the discussion might go, but so much of what happens is dependent on contingency in the moment of conflict and negotiation and interaction among those who have a stake in these debates. So, I think to look at a particular moment, even a particular piece of legislation, and to assume it is the logical outcome of historical factors, or of the characteristics of a whole population, is problematic.

YOUR DISSERTATION WAS FOCUSED ON FRANCE AND QUEBEC IS BROUGHT INTO UNVEILING THE NATION. WHAT DID YOU SEE AS THE MAIN DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THOSE TWO SPACES?

There is a whole community of scholarship around the comparison between the politics of secularism in France and in Quebec, the main similarities being that these two societies have historical, institutional, cultural, political linkages to one another. Those linkages have contributed to the establishment of certain overlapping discourses around religion and around the presence of minorities, particularly in contexts that historically were marked by the dominance of the Catholic church but which have since experienced very significant processes of secularization. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution took place much more recently, in the 1950s and 60s. France’s revolution, of course, dates back to the 18th century. But in both societies, there is a real palpable memory of Catholic Church dominance which is seen as a dark period in national history, and responses to minority religious populations — particularly Muslim populations — are read through that history. The societal reaction to Muslim minorities is also marked in both cases by colonialism, by a history of colonial domination particularly of France in the region of North Africa. France’s Muslim population very much derives from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In Quebec, there is some similarity in the origins of Muslim minorities because of the province’s own connection to France and because Quebec’s immigration system prioritizes knowledge of the French language. So, there are those similarities: the historical role of the Catholic Church, the emergence of a shared vocabulary around secularism or laïcité, and the presence of Muslim populations with overlapping colonial origins.

Then there are of course significant differences. Quebec is not a nation-state; it is a nation within in a multi-national state that has significant – but only partial – control over the selection and incorporation of immigrants. For my purposes, a major difference between the two settings involves the nature of the party-political system. France’s system, I argue, has historically been structured around competing ideas about the economy. It’s been a traditionally left-right political system in which you have the right-wing calling for free market capitalism and left-wing parties demanding more redistribution by the state. So, that’s where parties have historically positioned themselves. You also have this rising force of the ultra-right, the Front National (recently renamed Rassemblement National), which has disrupted the established system of party-political contention. I think that very much frames the debate that ultimately unfolded around Islamic signs in France. In Quebec, you don’t have a serious ultra-right political contender. You have threads of ultra-right discourse emerging in various spaces but you don’t have an ultra-right political party per se. Moreover, the nature of party-political contention in that setting is very much centered on the question of the nation; it’s less of a class-based electoral system. To be sure, there’s a populist element. We’re seeing populist ideas sprout across political systems. But no, you don’t have a political party that has situated itself on the extreme right end of the political system. And I argue that this difference in the structures of party-political contention plays an under-appreciated role in shaping the outcome of debates over religious signs in France and Quebec.

THE DEBATE OVER SECULARISM IS ABOUT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AND HOW RELIGION CONTRIBUTES TO THIS NATIONALIST DISCOURSE. DO YOU THINK THAT RELIGION IS AS IMPORTANT — OR EVEN MORE IMPORTANT – NOW THAN LANGUAGE OR CULTURE AS SOMETHING THAT DISTINGUISHES QUEBEC?

I would argue that until the Quiet Revolution, the French language was central to Quebecois national identity but religion was even more significant. The Church played such a significant role in the allocation of public services, in health care, in education, in culture. Beginning with the Quiet Revolution, you see language become the main carrier of a newly secularizing national identity. Although religion remained imprinted on Quebec’s cultural and visual landscape, language became the key object of political mobilizing and the main way to define Quebec as a “distinct society”. What’s interesting, though, is that, with the contemporary religious signs debate, the Catholic religion and the fight to promote the French language have sort of become re-attached to one another. For instance, you’ll notice that in the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s 2008 report, and in the subsequent legislative proposals having to do with religious signs, language appears front-and-centre. In advertising the Charter of Values, for example, the Parti Quebecois repeatedly invoked the question of language. The message of the government at the time was that the Charter would embody the “values” of secularism, neutrality of religion, the neutrality of the state, gender equality, and language. All of these became fused together in that debate. Thus, religion and language are operating in a strange tandem – and tension – in these discussions.

The relationship to the Catholic religion is very complicated in Quebec because many people in civil society and in politics are viscerally against any kind of public expression of religion. But you’ll often see those same people advocate for maintenance of the cross on the top of Mount Royal, the crucifix in the National Assembly. This combination of opinions is made possible by the fact that those symbols have been repackaged as not being religious but as being reflective of a cultural, historical heritage. They’ve also been reframed as non-religious objects in a way that makes them more consistent with the state’s official discourse of secularism.

YOU TALKED ABOUT THERE BEING A LOT OF COMMUNITY AND COORDINATION IN MAKING COMPARATIVE STUDIES BETWEEN FRANCE AND QUEBEC. WHAT ARE YOU HOPING YOUR WORK IS CONTRIBUTING TO THAT?

There is such a rich literature that already looks into the related histories of these two debates. Scholars have examined the discursive elements of those debates, asking how the discourse of laïcité has been mobilized in France and Quebec to address Islamic signs. They’ve also considered the role of law in these discussions. Because obviously, it’s different. The innovative contribution of my work to that conversation is its focus on the role of politics. I take seriously what political parties are doing and show that electoral politics can be a space in which legal texts are interpreted and reinterpreted, in which cultural scripts are written and rewritten, and in which national histories are imagine and reimagined. So, I’m trying to show that we need to consider the electoral arena as one in which state projects involving the treatment of religious minorities take shape.

HAVE ANY OF YOUR VIEWS OR IDEAS CHANGED IN THE PROCESS OF TURNING YOUR DISSERTATION INTO A BOOK? WHAT HAS THAT PROCESS BEEN LIKE?

This is probably not the answer that you have in mind, but one thing that is — I’ll say “interesting” with a slightly ironic tone — when publishing a book on an issue that is so current and constantly evolving is that you have to think about how to frame your research in a way that is timely while being clear about the inevitable limitations of writing about a particular “moment” in time. I’m very much aware of the fact that, every day, something new occurs in the politics of secularism in France and Quebec. And, recently, both societies have experienced real upheavals in the nature of electoral conflict. But these upheavals are consistent with how I view the religious signs debate and how I frame it in the book: as a contemporary phenomenon that involves a huge amount of contingency and contestation. We are not going to close the book on the religious signs issue because this is going to be an ongoing debate. And we don’t know where it’s going to go. So, there is certainly a challenge in analyzing a topic that is very contemporary and involves an ever-changing landscape.

SO, THAT’S NEW: THAT THESE ISSUES HAVE KIND OF BECOME LIKE A CORE PART OF THE IDENTITY OF EACH PARTY?

I think what has always been a core part of parties’ identity in Quebec is where they stand broadly on what constitutes nationhood, what it should look like, what its future is, who belongs within the boundaries of the Quebec nation. These themes have been a major source of contention and party identity in the modern period. And the religious signs issue has become the terrain on which Quebec’s parties articulate their differing stances on these themes. It has become the territory upon which parties mark their place vis-à-vis what Quebec nationhood should look like. I don’t know if Bill 21 – which the newly elected CAQ government recently proposed and which would prohibit religious signs among civil servants in positions of “authority” – is going to put an end to the legislative battle over secularism in Quebec, but I do I think the conversation is going to continue to show that parties want to use this battle as a venue in which to advance their differing national projects.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO STUDY AT MCGILL AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO YOUR DOCTORATE IN TORONTO AND NOT IN QUEBEC?

I went to Montreal as an undergrad student: I did my BA and Masters at McGill. I lived in France as a kid; I was educated in the public French school system in Toronto, which is something that a lot of Torontonians don’t know exists, but there is a fully public-funded French school system in Toronto. So, I only attended school in French until the age of 18 when I went to McGill. My parents are not Francophone; they’re Anglophone, but they had always been interested in France. They themselves learned French as adults and so from an early age, I was familiar with French culture and spoke French fluently. My interest in questions of immigration also arose in part out of the fact that most of my fellow students in Toronto’s public French school system were 1.5 and second-generation immigrants, whose parents came to Canada from countries in North Africa and the Middle East, in which French is widely spoken. So, I was already thinking about questions of language, thinking about bilingualism and Canada’s national identity, thinking about immigration, diversity. I had a lot of Muslim friends who came from, or whose parents came from, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon.

And so, it was a natural thing for me to – once I became a postsecondary student in Quebec – become interested in Quebec politics and issues of language, and to consider how questions of diversity were becoming conflated with questions of nationhood and language in that province. After completing my Master’s at McGill, I chose the U of T for my PhD, both because I wanted to do the degree in a different institution than where I had been previously and because U of T’s sociology department is renowned for its immigration focus. The scholars in the department have a breadth of expertise in this area, with some focusing on state policies and public perceptions of diversity while others look at the on-the-ground experiences of immigrant communities. There is also the opportunity to learn from those who study these issues using qualitative means and quantitative survey data. So, I knew there was going to be a real community of faculty in that department who would be well-poised to help me figure out how I was going to dive into this topic.

DID IT PRESENT ANY CHALLENGES, DOING THIS RESEARCH FROM OUTSIDE OF QUEBEC?

Yes, I mean, it’s a challenge to do research on Quebec as an Anglophone – albeit bilingual – living in English-Canada. That is certainly a complicated position to occupy because it is so political. But I think that the community at U of T really helped me navigate this. That’s where I learned to engage in the broader conversations that were going on around immigration and diversity. I think my theoretical and empirical training was strong. And sometimes studying an issue as an outsider gives you a unique perspective on it. I was kind of an insider-outsider to the Quebec community when I was doing that research.

IT’S INTERESTING THAT YOU DID ALL THOSE YEARS OF SCHOOLING IN TORONTO IN FRENCH AND THEN WENT INTO POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION IN ENGLISH, IN A FRENCH PROVINCE. WHAT WAS THAT TRANSITION LIKE?

I am bilingual and very comfortable in both languages. But, I think in English, I dream in English – it’s my mother tongue. So, I don’t think I ever envisioned completely writing and working and thinking in French. And it’s certainly true that McGill occupies a strange space within Montreal as an historically Anglophone institution. It’s in an awkward position right in the centre of a largely French-speaking city. But I think that made it a useful vantage point from which to become aware of the kinds of national and linguistic tensions that I was interested in. I think it was always in the cards that I was going to attend an Anglophone institution but I wanted to do so within a Francophone province and political-cultural space.

WHAT WAS THE DAY-TO-DAY DIFFERENCE OF BEING IN QUEBEC VERSUS BEING IN TORONTO? BECAUSE CULTURALLY IT’S DIFFERENT EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE IN AN ANGLOPHONE INSTITUTION.

You know, the issue of language and identity was so much part of my daily conversations with people that I knew in Montreal. The conversations we would have were so often about nationhood and language and I always found it difficult to position myself within that because it’s an ongoing, it’s an ongoing issue at all times and as we said, language is so much inscribed in these debates. So, when the Bouchard-Taylor Commission was launched in 2007, I had even more conversations with people, not just on what we thought about religious signs, but what we thought about the linguistic contours of Quebec as a nation and its place within Canada.

So, there were lots of conversations; it was a very rich environment to be in and I don’t think we think about those as much in Toronto. Diversity and multilingualism is just sort of a fact of life here and it’s not nearly as much on the radar of communities, of politicians; it’s not part of our everyday conversation to the same extent. Part of our everyday reality but not our everyday conversation, nearly as much.

In Quebec, if it was not explicit, it was always right beneath the surface.

CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A POST-DOCTORAL FELLOW AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, HOW YOU GOT THERE AND WHAT IT WAS LIKE?

I applied to do a SSRCH post-doctoral fellowship with Geneviève Zubrzycki at the University of Michigan because she is a well-known expert; she’s written a lot on Quebec, she’s written a lot on Quebec secularism, she is familiar with a lot of the different aspects of these debates over religious signs. She approaches these questions from the angle of a cultural sociologist. She’s interested in the materiality of secularism and religion and how they sort of intersect. I wanted to work with someone who was prominent and who had experience communicating the story of Quebec’s religious signs debate to a large international audience because you don’t see that that much. And so, I spent one full academic year in Ann Arbor and then some parts of the next year but it was a two-year postdoctoral fellowship and it was an immensely rich experience. I was really welcomed into their sociology department; had my own office, attended functions of the department, met a huge number of faculty. It’s an incredibly impressive university. The resources that they have, the guest speakers that they have, you know, I was able to take advantage of that atmosphere and that environment and it allowed me the mental and physical space to sit down and really turn what had been a dissertation about France into a book about France and Quebec. This added a comparative element that ultimately resulted in this book. And I benefited immensely during my time in Michigan from the help of Geneviève and other mentors that I acquired along the way, people who had experience in publishing books and understand how to negotiate that.

HOW ARE THESE CONVERSATIONS ABOUT QUEBEC AND FRANCE UNDERSTOOD STATESIDE?

When you have people like Geneviève Zubrzycki talking about Quebec and setting it up as a case of broad scholarly interest, there is a huge response but still it’s a challenge. I think it’s a hurdle to overcome for any author who is writing, even about Canada in general, not just Quebec. With the huge American audience, it is so important to think strategically about how you’re going to frame your work and how you’re going to set up the importance of the case. That’s not easy to do.

WHAT’S THE MAIN CHALLENGE?

I think there’s a tendency to view work on Canada on the surface as being of limited significance, and I think sometimes you have to convince American and European audiences of the significance of this as a case for understanding broader sociological processes. We’re a small country relative to these other large nation-states that we’re in dialogue with, and I think we have to do more to make it clear that our work on Canada reflects upon work on other societies.

I think it’s changing. I really do think it’s changing. I think Canada is showing itself to be a place that is relatively resilient when it comes to the negative political developments that we’re seeing around the world. I think our bilingual – well, multilingual in fact —and multicultural heritage is such a strength and is something that countries that don’t necessarily have that multilingual and that multicultural and that multinational history are interested in as they begin to reckon with more and more diverse populations. It can serve as, you know, I think it can be a very rich way in which to study all of these intersecting factors of religion, of language, of culture, and of race. So, it’s starting to change but it’s still an uphill battle.

HOW DID THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PREPARE YOU FOR TEACHING AT MICHIGAN AND TEACHING AT GLENDON?

Really well. One thing that drove me to choose U of T sociology as the place to do my dissertation was the fact that I knew it was a department that highlights the professionalization of students. You are immediately drawn into a research culture that is active; that is very outward looking. It’s very common for grad students in sociology at U of T to attend conferences, with and without their supervisors. So, I think we were well-trained early on, socialized into that academic habitus and in terms of participating on professors’ large grants; you know, working on research assistantships; applying for our own grants, there’s a lot of infrastructure and assistance around all of that. I was able to teach three or four courses as a graduate student, which gave me a lot of experience. I think a lot of us feel like, going into our eventual teaching jobs, we would have liked to have had more training in teaching, but I think that’s the kind of blind spot that exists across universities, that you have to learn by doing, which works to some degree. And there are resources around teaching that I could have taken more advantage of. But I think it prepared me well. I wouldn’t have made the connections that I made with the University of Michigan if I hadn’t been in a department that had people that connected me in that way.

WHAT DO YOU MOST WANT YOUR STUDENTS TO TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR WORK OR YOUR TEACHING?

Teaching “Intro to Sociology” has been fun because it’s kind of reacquainted me with why I’m a sociologist. It’s reminded me what it is that we care about; what our priorities are as scholars. You know, thinking about just the basic idea that – and this is drawing from C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination — our personal troubles are informed by larger social issues and structures. My students get that implicitly but leading them through all of the areas in which to observe that connection between the personal and the social; it’s fun to see their minds kind of explode when they really connect to the fact that, hey, you know, social inequality is real and it’s shaped me. That is something that I think students will continue to be attuned to. So, whatever field or discipline they go into, I think that course has given them a real foundation for being aware of social problems and being attuned to the social structures that shape those problems.

IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU FIND THE MOST SURPRISING TO YOUR STUDENTS, OR THAT THEY RESPOND TO VERY STRONGLY?

They’re surprised by the amount of class inequality and income inequality that exists in Canada. I mean, I think that they, and that you know, the public possibly broadly has a tendency to view Canadian society as a highly equal society in which governments take care of their citizens and in which we take care of each other and I think students are shocked to find out the extent of the income gap that exists within Canada. And they relate to that because a lot of them – I would say a majority of the students in my intro class – work at least part-time jobs and hard part-time jobs, and so when you talk about income and class inequality they, they relate to that on a personal level. I think that’s an area that they get on a personal level.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NEXT?

I am already launching into my next project which will further probe the role of populist politicians, parties, discourses, and scripts in contemporary debates over diversity in immigration societies. My work on the politics of secularism in France and Quebec made me curious to better understand populism itself and how populist movements are emerging in unexpected places; what they’re doing; what constitutes the populist mindset. And so in my next series of articles, populism is going to be the main object of study. I’m working on one co-authored project with Efe Peker, who’s currently a post-doctoral fellow at McGill, on populism and religion. We’re asking how populist movements draw upon themes of religion but also themes of secularism to engage the public in their claims. And then, I’m also working on a new sole-authored project looking at how populist politicians frame politics and the law as dimensions of state power that are in conflict with one another. Populist politicians – on the list of which I would include Doug Ford in Ontario and Francois Legault in Quebec – are increasingly framing constitutional texts, the courts, judges, and legal experts as enemies of the populist project; enemies of the people. I’m interested in unpacking that and trying to better understand this conflict.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE REST OF YOUR CAREER? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO? ACADEMIA, POLICY OR SOMETHING ELSE? DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ACADEMIA FOR A WHILE?

Yes, I do. I don’t think any academic who lands in a tenure-track job ever says they plan to give it up so if they’ll have me, I intend to stay and, I’m very happy with where I’ve landed. I think it’s a place from which I can do a lot of interesting things. I think Glendon is the kind of place that’s not only an academic environment but it’s connected to a community, and I think I want to become more involved in that public community aspect of the institution. So, public sociology is something that’s on my to-do list. Doing more public sociology. I began by writing a few op-ed articles but I haven’t done so in a while and I think it’s time that I took the conclusions of my research and sort of used that to communicate something to the broader public. I also think it’s a moment in which academics have a responsibility to play a more active role in policy debates and public conversations and so I intend to do more of that, certainly.

This interview has been edited and condensed.