PQ secure in putting its political future at risk over controversial values charter

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A girl wearing a hijab waits at the Shah Alam stadium during celebrations of Maulidur Rasul, or the birth of Prophet Muhammad, outside Kuala Lumpur January 14, 2014. REUTERS/Samsul Said (MALAYSIA - Tags: RELIGION)

The first week of public hearings on the Parti Quebecois' proposed secular values charter entrenches the feeling that the minority government is staking its political future on the controversial legislation.

Based on news reports from the hearings in Quebec City, which began Tuesday, the separatist PQ sees the charter as a tool for distancing the province from Canada, and the hearings as a platform to demonstrate that.

That was made clear in an exchange Thursday between Bernard Drainville, minister responsible for democratic institutions who's quarterbacking the charter legislation, and Johanne Brodeur, president of the Quebec Bar Association.

Bill 60, Brodeur told the hearings, violates not just the Canadian Constitution but also Quebec's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as international accords on civil liberties, CTV News reported.

There's no evidence a charter that aims to affirm official state secularism by barring public employees from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols is necessary.

“There is a lack of documentation and facts,” Brodeur said.

[ Related: Quebec human rights commission says rights charter won't stand up to legal fight ]

Drainville's revealing response underscored the PQ's central theme, that Quebec isn't Canada and Canadian values don't apply.

“If it is good for the Canadian charter to express Canadian values, why isn’t it then good for the Quebec charter to reflect Quebec values?” Drainville said.

It's the kind of remark that makes federalists tear their hair out.

With some 250 expected presentations, the hearings are expected to take months and may not be finished by the time the minority PQ government faces a confidence test over its upcoming budget. Many observers believe the charter is a crude political tool aimed at coalescing nationalist support in an expected spring election.

The hearings have pitted lawyers, academics and professional groups opposed to the charter against unions and secularist groups and individuals who worry Quebec's diversifying population – at least in urban areas – represents a creeping threat to the province's modern secular identity.

Quebecers, the government argues, have a right to be served by public employees who reflect the state's officially secular position.

The debate since elements of the proposed charter were first leaked last summer has exposed a streak of intolerance in Quebec society.

Samira Laouni, a Muslim women who's lived in the province since the 1990s, said the charter is creating unheard-of social tensions, the Globe and Mail reported. Hijab-wearing women like her have been confronted in the street and even spat upon, she said.

“I’ve been here for 15 years. I have never seen it like this until now,” Laouni said.

She bridled at Drainville's suggestion the restrictions on Muslim headscarves and veils affects only a small percentage of people.

“In a democratic country you need to think about the one per cent that is affected," she told the minister. "You don’t think about the absolute majority, you think about the minority that is being crushed."

But the government's position has significant public support. While Bill 60 would prohibit Jewish skullcaps, Christian crosses and Sikh turbans, much of the attention seems to be on female Muslim head coverings. Charter supporters see them as a challenge to gender equality.

Michelle Blanc, a transgender Quebecer who advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), told the committee Wednesday she believes Bill 60 doesn't go far enough, CBC News reported. She claimed she'd been spit on by women wearing veils because of her transgender status.

“When I see a veil, the mental image I have is of all the gays who were hung high and low in the public square ... in certain Arab countries," she said, according to the National Post. "And they invite the children to see it because it’s a show for families."

Former nun Andrea Richard, who now rejects all religion, is also uneasy when encountering hijab-wearing women.

“I’ll give you an example of the effect conspicuous symbols can have,” she told the hearing “Personally, I went to Staples four years ago, and there was a woman with a veil at the cash, and I changed cashiers because I felt ill at ease. I did not want to know her religion.”

[ Related: Quebec cabinet minister says values charter likely to become election issue ]

A post on Jezebel's Groupthink page suggested Richard and Blanc were projecting their own insecurities on the Muslims they encountered.

"Again, so much internalized hate," said the post by Laurensjam, referring to Richard's testimony. "You do not get to project your issues onto other people."

Perhaps one of the most interesting presentations came from philosopher Michel Seymour. The Université de Montréal professor is member of the sovereignty movement's brains trust but opposes the charter as wrongheaded and exclusionary. It can only hurt the prospects for independence.

"Quebec will be inclusive or it will not," Seymour told the committee Wednesday, according to the Montreal Gazette. "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the people and it shouldn't be entering their closets either."

Underscoring the argument the charter addresses a non-existent problem, Seymour noted that of Quebec's 62,000 nurses, only 6.8 per cent wore a religious symbol. In the vast majority of cases, it was a crucifix. Less than 300 wore a hijab or veil, he said.

Seymour, who favours a ban limited to people in authority such as judges, prosecutors and police, said in his brief the PQ's charter represents "conservative nationalism."

"It is a form of identity withdrawal, meaning we fall back on the identity of the majority," he said.