The ruling Parti Québécois would have the world believe that the majority of Quebecers in general, and Quebec sovereignists in particular, overwhelmingly support the party’s so-called “charter of Quebec values.” Banning “conspicuous” religious symbols from the province’s public sector is nothing short of a “project for the future of Quebec,” as Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville said in September. In the 1970s, the party legislated the supremacy of the French language; today, it wants to do much the same with secularism.
Yet the proposed charter hasn’t only divided Quebecers, who successive polls suggest are equally split on the idea of banning religious garb. As this week’s public hearings at Quebec’s National Assembly have already shown—just a few days into what will be a weeks-long process—the charter has similarly divided Quebec’s sovereignist movement.
No fewer than three former Parti Québécois premiers have expressed their disapproval of their party’s proposed law, including Jacques Parizeau, who remains the doyen of the party’s hardline wing. At best, Parizeau has written, the proposed charter is unnecessary; at worst, it panders to those whose “only contact?.?.?.?with the Muslim world is the image of violence, repeated ad infinitum: wars, riots, bombs.”
Parizeau acolyte and former Bloc Québécois MP Jean Dorion goes further, calling the charter “thinly veiled intolerance” of Quebec’s Muslim population, while his former Bloc colleague Maria Mourani has given up on sovereignty altogether because of it.
Rarely, if ever, have divisions within the sovereignist camp been aired so publicly. Since the beginnings of Quebec’s nationalist movement in the mid-1960s, whatever differences existed between members were largely put aside, if only to better fight the dreaded federalists. There have been exceptions, to be sure: René Lévesque lost much of his caucus when he dared extend a hand to former prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1985, and he died two years later with several political knives in his back.
Yet, unlike Lévesque’s gambit, the charter is meant to bolster the sovereignist argument by consolidating the old-stock nationalist vote under the PQ banner. It has been a mitigated success; the party has seen a bump in the polls since last fall. Yet that hasn’t stopped many sovereignists themselves from protesting what they see as a short-sighted electoral ploy that will damage the sovereignty movement in the long run.
“There are an overwhelming number of people within the cultural communities of Quebec who feel excluded from the project,” says Françoise David, co-leader of Québec solidaire, a sovereignist party with two seats in the National Assembly. “I’ve always said that we need everyone to be behind the sovereignty project—not just white, francophone Quebecers. With the charter, it’s like we’re telling minorities that you can stay here only as long as you behave like us.”
Perhaps one bellwether for the PQ’s electoral fortunes is Viau, the Montreal electoral riding. Though multicultural and staunchly federalist, the PQ has historically garnered the lion’s share of its not-insignificant sovereignist vote. Yet the party’s support plummeted by 38 per cent in December’s by-election, held just over a year after the 2012 election. Quebec solidaire, which fielded its first candidate in Viau in 2007, nearly equalled the PQ vote.
In October, Quebec solidaire introduced its own charter, which would allow the wearing of religious symbols. However, it would: modify Quebec’s charter of human rights and freedoms to include a reference to Quebec’s secular state; dictate under what circumstances a “reasonable accommodation” can be given to a religious minority; and ensure that anyone giving or receiving a government service does so with her face uncovered.
“The vast majority of Quebecers are in favour of these kinds of provisions,” David says. “But it’s crazy to suggest that someone wearing a crucifix or a kippa is a sign that Quebec has become a Catholic or a Jewish state. Quebecers know better than that. I don’t want to call it ethnic nationalism, because I understand the implications of that term, but there’s a certain parochialism to it.”
Some 250 hours have been devoted to parliamentary hearings into the PQ’s proposed legislation. Yet charter opponents are already finding their words have so far fallen on deaf ears. “We will not dilute the charter,” Drainville said on the eve of this week’s public hearings, rebuffing opposition calls to soften the charter’s reach. For David, it is a disaster for the sovereignist movement. “The PQ isn’t racist, but it hasn’t considered the consequences of their own legislation. They are creating insecurity among Quebecers, strictly for electoral reasons.”