Quebec values charter: PQ playing a dangerous game of identity politics

David vs. David
In Montreal Saturday, protesters took to the streets to express opposition to the province's proposed charter of values

Pauline Marois, Quebec’s 30th premier, is Canada’s dubious Femme de l’Heure. Touted on the one hand for playing a masterful game of identity politics, her remarks have tended to create considerable angst in the minds of those who think otherwise.

In an interview in early September during which she contrasted secularism in France to multiculturalism in Britain, her inclusion of a reference to recent homegrown terrorist attacks invoked a lot of criticism: ”In England, they get into fights and throw bombs at one another because of multiculturalism ... people get lost in that kind of society.”

The current controversy regarding the proposed Quebec “values” charter is the continuation of a process of secularization and religious neutrality in public institutions which began decades ago. The Parti Québécois explains the need for this charter by stating that in the 1960s, the Catholic Church agreed to step out of the education and health fields, and that now there is a need for new restrictions to deal with the growing religious diversity. As education minister in the late 1990s, Ms. Marois herself contributed to the secularization process by deconfessionalizing the public-school system.

In 2007, Hérouxville adopted a “code of conduct” that advised newcomers not to bring their visibly non-Catholic religious traditions with them, such as wearing the kirpan, kippah, turban, yarmulke or the niqab. Konrad Yakabuski of the Globe and Mail notes that this code was both a backlash against the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities residing in Montreal and a manifestation of the conservatism rooted in Catholic tradition in rural Quebec.

In 2010, a group of left-leaning Quebecers published a manifesto seeking “a secular and pluralist Quebec” by advocating strict religious neutrality as the guarantor of an “authentically pluralistic” society. “The neutrality of the state is expressed in the image of neutrality given by its representatives. The latter must therefore avoid displaying their religious, philosophical or political affiliations.”

This particular manifesto was a reaction to another document written by liberal intellectuals who espoused diversity by encouraging a more accommodating position toward immigrants seeking to express their religious identification in public.

In early 2013, there was a fracas over the proposed banning of turbans on the soccer field.

And now the minority PQ government is seeking, by way of its proposed Charter of Quebec Values, to bring together the conservative traditionalists of the hinterland with the progressive secularists of Montreal in one united cause. Its secular charter will ban all public-sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols such as kippas, turbans, veils, hijabs, niqabs or burkas on the job and will also present stricter guidelines for the accommodation of religious minorities by public institutions and employers. Believing that secularism is best, Ms Marois steadfastly insists that the charter will be a uniting force as Quebec strives to attain its overall objective of religious neutrality.

However, Richard Chambers, director, University of Toronto Multi-Faith Centre, notes that, in other parts of Canada, the goal of a secular society has been achieved by welcoming a wide range of religious diversity in the public realm. No religion is privileged above another. “This is,” he asserts, “a secular society that doesn’t have to legislate how people dress.”

The controversy has stoked widespread criticism.

Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has not only decried the charter as “horrible public policy” showing intolerance, but has also stated that those people who are made to feel unwelcome in Quebec as a result of the proposed charter would be welcomed in Calgary.

The Fédération Autonome d’Enseignements (FAE), representing about one-third of the teachers in Quebec, has said that if the PQ government really wants to secularize education, it should stop funding private religious schools rather than prohibiting teachers from wearing overt religious symbols. “...Quebec should aim for integration, not assimilation, of immigrants....We don’t want a witch hunt for teachers wearing crosses or hijabs.”

The sagest comments come from Irwin Cotler, MP for Mount Royal and a former federal justice minister and attorney general:

...the ‘charter of values’ reportedly being contemplated ... would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades. Indeed, banning manifestations of religious belief...would constitute a radical break not only with a our provincial and federal charters of rights and with international human rights law, but with Quebec values themselves, as articulated by icons of Quebec’s nationalist movement.

On September 9th, in an attempt to show flexibility, the PQ announced that the rules will not prevent government workers from wearing a pendant or earrings with a small cross, a Star of David, or a star and crescent “as long as it is worn discreetly.” It also plans to provide a five-year exemption clause for municipalities, hospitals and post-secondary institutions that wish to permit their employees to continue wearing religious symbols on the job. It will not, however, permit any exemptions for workers in subsidized daycare facilities or in primary and secondary schools.

This clause may help the charter proposal to survive an eventual challenge based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a crucial test to ensure its acceptability across Canada.

The main proposals target government workers; however, the minority government plans to legislate restrictions that will prevent civil servants, judges, police officers, and prison workers from wearing visible religious symbols at work.

On September 10th, the PQ released the broad outlines of its proposal, leading to an informal round of consultation before the formal legislation is tabled later this autumn. At that time, the bill will be subject to full legislative scrutiny in the National Assembly. Unsurprisingly, the PQ vows to protect Quebec’s “historical heritage” and to leave a large crucifix in place in the National Assembly.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard calls the charter a “trial balloon”, saying that he will oppose it if the rules end up being divisive. Hopefully the balloon will pop before becoming fully inflated.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.