Charter of Values: Quebec in Controversy, Again

As promised in her election platform, Parti Quebécois (PQ) Premier Pauline Marois brought up last month five proposals intended for reinforcing principle of “religious neutrality” in the province. The series of proposed changes not only includes an amendment to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, but also a ban of the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols,” namely kappas, niqabs, turbans, hijabs, and large crucifixes, by state personnel while at work. This means that certain employees at municipalities, hospitals, public schools, and universities would need to make a choice between their religious devotion and their job.

“The state must be neutral. We therefore propose to affirm in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms–the state independent from religion to ensure there is no bias in favour of one confession or another. We also propose in affirming in the Charter–the state’s neutrality and secular nature of our institutions,” said Bernard Drainville, Minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship and spokesperson for the proposed Charter of Values.

Since the formal bill has not been approved, the PQ minority government is monitoring the reaction of the people and contemplating an opt-out clause in addition to the five proposals, as reported in the Montreal Gazette. The proposals invited much criticism from within the province and across the country, accusing the Quebec government of violating the fundamental freedom of religion.

Ultimately, this recent proposal has ignited much debate on some basic questions on identity and religion: who qualifies as a Québécois? Where does one draw the line for religious accommodation? And how does one separate private and public life in a secular society?

The Critical Voices

Presently, the majority of political parties at both the federal and provincial levels disfavour the proposals. Prime Minister Stephen Harper predicted the downfall of the Charter of Values and said that the federal government will take “whatever action is necessary” to block it if it is approved at the provincial level on the grounds that it would be in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in its present form, as reported in CBC News. Similarly NDP Opposition leader Tom Mulcair called the PQ’s action “undignified.” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also condemned the proposal as “divisive, negative, and emotional”, but stated that he had faith in Quebeckers to stop it from passing.  

Quebeckers who are against the Charter of Values have adopted the usual method to affirm their opinion—the streets. According to CTV News, thousands of people gathered in downtown Montreal on September 14th wearing overt religious attire to protest against the proposed Charter. Organizers of the protest told CTV that it would be first of the several actions against the PQ government’s decision, and protesters criticize the PQ for reinforcing stereotypes about Quebec as being especially intolerant and racist.

Other public or non-governmental institutions have taken a stance in opposition to the proposed Charter. Suzanne Fortier, the new Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University released a disapproving statement and pointed out that religious attire “in no way interferes with the religious and political neutrality of McGill as an institution.”  Similarly, Amnesty International suggested that, although it sought to promote equality between sexes, a prohibition on religious headwear “will not solve the problem” but was a violation of “fundamental rights.”

Who qualifies as Quebecois?

One can attribute the motive of proposing the Charter of Values to Quebeckers’ concerns about an erosion of the Francophone way of life by its Anglophone counterpart, and more recently, foreign immigrants with distinct religious believes. Unlike the rest of Canada that adopts multiculturalism in its immigration policy, Quebec has always pursued a policy of integration to protect the French language and the province’s distinct culture–it has immigration programs independent from the selection process by the federal government, and immigrants in Quebec are to a great extent obligated to learn French.

 Yet, the truth of the matter is that immigration has diversified religion in the province. Some Quebeckers view those new religious practices as threatening and fear that they may reverse public life back to the days before the Quiet Revolution, a secularization movement in the 1960s.  Moreover, the Quebec government has been reluctant to make certain religious accommodations that it deems hurtful to average residents, such as having to glaze the windows of the Montreal YMCA to take away the view of women working out in gym upon a request from a nearby Orthodox Jewish school.

 “We need rules or soon enough we won’t feel chez nous. It will become like the Conquest of 1759, when the British ran everything and the little Québécois were exploited. In the long term, where will our roots be if we’re invaded  by other religions?” said France Vaugeois, resident of Hérouxville, a small village in Quebec, to the Globe and Mail.

Pierre Brunet, another resident at Hérouxville echoed this concern. “I’m for accommodating minorities, but you need guidelines. People want a neutral state. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid that Quebec will become like Montreal. We don’t want to lose being Quebécois,” he said.

For people like Vaugeois and Brunet, the Charter of Values is a layer of protection, an assurance that the secularized state will not modify their public life to make way for new religious practices brought in by immigrants. Although this view may appear xenophobic, it raises a legitimate question of how far should the state go to accommodate religious minorities, and the heart of controversy with the Charter of Values lies the fact that Québécois have different bottom lines for religious accommodation.  

 However, setting aside the religious interests of recent immigrants, the proposed Charter seems to have some internal contradictions that make it difficult to be defended by the PQ. Minister Drainville has stated that the PQ aims to affirm state neutrality “while recognizing elements of our heritage that bear witness to our history.” In this case, those elements of heritage are likely to refer to the historical legacy of the Roman Catholic faith in Quebec, such as the large cross on Mount Royal, and these religious symbols are not eliminated by the Charter of Values. Yet, this logic discriminates against other religions, namely the Islamic and Jewish faiths that are not considered as part of the Quebec heritage.

 More importantly, one questions whether a neutral state should have the right to decide what is and is not part of its heritage. Does the religious tradition of a Muslim family that has been living in Quebec for generations become part of the Québécois heritage? Does wearing a hijab or a turban make a doctor who was born and raised in Quebec less Québécois than someone who is atheist? These are questions that the PQ must address to be free of the accusation of discrimination.

The PQ’s “Secularism”

The Globe and Mail reports that the PQ’s largest support base consists of “pure laine Catholics” who live outside of Metropolitan Montreal and perceive the Roman Catholic Church as cultural touchstone even if they no longer attend mass. If this is the case, then the PQ is basing province-wide policies on behalf of a significant demographic that feels insecure about the preservation of the traditional Québécois language and culture.

However, something seems to be mistaken in the PQ’s case for secularism, as it risks the possibility of achieving just the opposite in the long run. “Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is recipe for backlash and resentment,” wrote Professor Michael Sandel in his book Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do.  

 In other words, the appearance of neutrality achieved by banning religious attire does not necessarily lead to genuine neutrality on the part of state personnel. Someone who does not wear conspicuous religious symbols may apply their religious values to their work.  Similarly, someone in religious attire does not necessarily mingle their beliefs to their work. Hence, prohibiting state personnel to dress a certain way does not make a state’s policies, work, or presentation more secular in practice.  Furthermore, rather than achieving neutrality, a direct restriction of conspicuous religious symbols could have the tendency to differentiate people according to their beliefs. While some religions do not make religious symbols a non-optional requirement of faith, others do, and the act of restricting those who see the wearing of religious attire as an integral part of their faith might have the effect of segregating them from Quebec’s society. This could create deep divisions that defeat the purpose.


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