The so-called “Quebec values charter” would compel Quebec’s public sector employees, as well as anyone doing business with the government, to doff their religious accoutrements should they be too large and/or “conspicuous.” Introduced by way of strategic media leaks in late August, the Parti Québecois bill has hogged much of the political oxygen over the past six months and, I know for a fact, ruined more than one Christmas party. The debate has often been of the shirt-ripping variety—the stuff of angry for-and-against newspaper columns, a half-dozen manifestos (notably here, here, and here) and, most troubling, a few dérapages in which certain individuals took it upon themselves to confront the so-called Muslim menace on the street or the bus.
This week, the bill began its long legislative path through the National Assembly with public hearings on the proposed charter. These hearings are the antithesis of the debate so far: arguments are couched in parliamentary language, outrage constrained by its decorum. In many ways, it’s how the debate should have started in the first place. Which is too bad, because though there are upwards of 280 hours of hearings scheduled, the fate of the charter is in all likelihood a fait accompli. Thanks to intransigence and the reality of Quebec’s minority government, there is very little chance of it becoming law before the next election. But more on this later.
Pro-charter types dominated the first day of the hearings, a result not of PQ meddling but because the pro-charter types were the first to submit briefs. Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship Minister Bernard Drainville, chief architect of the proposed charter, opened the hearings.
“At a time when Quebec has never been so diverse, which is a richness for all Quebecers, it is important to define what is the common base of our society to integrate new arrivals,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, religious signs send a message… The charter doesn’t prevent anyone from practising his or her religion. If they decide that their religion is more important than the neutrality of the state, that is their choice.” Choosing between one’s religion and one’s job “will be painful for some people,” Drainville admitted, “but it will promote more harmony, social cohesion, serenity and respect for others.”
“The charter is a step in the right direction [and] is very reasonable,” echoed Réjean Parent, former president of the Central des syndicats du Québec union federation. In fact, Parent said, the proposed law doesn’t go far enough because it “doesn’t fight religious fundamentalism.”
“Certain media has said we [Quebecers] are racists. I was shocked to hear that people would say we are something we are not.” A teacher by trade, Parent said banning religious symbols from the public sector was a natural next step in Quebec’s decades-long secularist evolution. “Step by step, we [secularized] the school system and replaced the clergy-dominated teaching core. It wasn’t done against anyone, but as a way to build our society.”
Creeping religiosity “is a social malaise, and it needs to be prevented,” he said. “It’s not quite a cancer but…” He later hammered home this point. “Fundamentalists have the habit of asking for accommodations to create precedent, to change society’s norms […] In my book, wearing a religious symbol at work isn’t a fundamental right.”
Sam Haroun, the second speaker, agreed. “God doesn’t accommodate,” said the retired high school teacher. A fervent supporter of the charter, Haroun also pointed to the secularization of Quebec’s classrooms. “It was a good thing when we took the crucifix out of the classrooms, because we had students from all over. If a teacher wears a cross, it sends a certain message.” Disallowing that teacher (or a civil servant, or a police officer) from wearing religious garb “is not an attack on the freedom of religion, but a limit on the freedom of religious expression.”
The vast majority of immigrants coming to Quebec settle in Montreal, a point clearly demonstrated by Serge Gauthier, the president of Charlevoix’s historical society and the first of four afternoon speakers. Charlevoix, the region north of Quebec City, is home to 125 immigrants, according to Statistics Canada. The charter is necessary to prevent Montreal from becoming “Quebec’s gigantic exception.”
“As residents of a Quebec region, we don’t want to find ourselves with a completely different Montreal in terms of socio-cultural identity from the rest of Quebec, especially in the image projected by state employees,” he said.
“I know a lot of people who have gone to Montreal, and when they came back they said they felt uncomfortable. It was a bit weird, a bit different,” Gauthier said later. He would welcome more immigrants to Charlevoix, though “we have a problem with unemployment in the region.”
“My brother-in-law is Laotian. We’ve welcomed him for 35 years. We ate tourtière together. We are very welcoming,” Gauthier said. Nevertheless, “It took us decades to get out from under the Catholic Church, we shouldn’t have to go at it again with another religion.”
The day’s sole dissenting voice was Samira Laouni, president of the Montreal-based Communication, Openness and Intercultural Rapprochement. Laouni, who wears a veil, described herself as a “fierce feminist” for whom “emancipation of women cannot take place without financial autonomy.” Laouni pointed out how Quebec has a high unemployment rate amongst its immigrant population—highest in the country, in fact, according to Statistics Canada. “Women are scared of going into the street alone for fear of being spit on or having their veil pulled off. I’ve been in Quebec for 15 years and it’s never been worse.”
Forcing observant women to remove their headscarves would further disenfranchise a significant portion of Quebec’s Muslim population. Laouni, it might be noted, is in favour of regulating religious accommodations, as well as a secular state. Her only sticking point, she says, is removing her veil. Noting how the proposed law singles out the Islamic head covering (but not, say, the religious facial hair), Laouni said, “Women pay the price, which the bearded man doesn’t have to suffer at all.”
Upwards of 300 individuals and groups will be heard in the coming months: unions, professors, secular and religious groups, various municipalities, hospitals, law societies, human rights organizations, universities and, notably, an anti-circumcision group bent on exposing the tyranny of conspicuously clipped members. As interesting as they may be, the hearings could well be all for naught. Even before the hearings began, Drainville declared there would be no question of changing any of the proposed law’s provisions—including the banning of religious symbols in the public sector, its most contentious provision.
Yet for all of Drainville’s obstinacy, the PQ is a minority government, and would therefore be ripe for a Liberal filibuster, if there isn’t an election call beforehand. Should that happen, and there is a strong chance it will, the PQ has made no attempt to hide its desire to use the charter as its warhorse of choice. The charter came to the National Assembly today, but it won’t be limited to its walls anytime soon.