Quebec’s latest turban controversy

Paul Wells explains what’s really behind the PQ’s Values Charter


Practice makes perfect. These days we’re getting to the shouting-match phase of our Quebec/”Rest of Canada” disputes over values without delay. Quebec’s Parti Québécois government hasn’t even released the actual text of its Values Charter, and already the Toronto Star is calling the thing “shameful.” That was all it took for Bernard Landry to reprise one of his most treasured routines, saying a bunch of stuff in hopes that just by the law of averages, something in there might make sense:

“It’s infuriating but it’s so pathetic to go and say that Quebec is xenophobic and racist — when from the start of our national adventure we intermingled with Amerindians. The majority of us have Amerindian roots, one-quarter of us have Irish roots, we have had six premiers of Irish origin. What are these people talking about? Why are they so misinformed in the rest of Canada?…

Landry made a prediction: that the rest of Canada will one day “deeply regret” having embraced the doctrine of multiculturalism…. “In the U.S., you never see a police officer with a turban. There are things worth regulating and I hope it gets done (here).”

These tirades always remind me of Robert Bourassa, who liked to say Landry was “toujours brillant, parfois intelligent.” One hardly knows where to begin. “We intermingled with the Amerindians”? Oh, well then. 

As always, replying to Landry with information seems to miss the point, because he’s not arguing, he’s engaging in pointillism. In Washington D.C., you will see police officers with turbans. In New York City, after post-9/11 scaremongering led to rules forbidding kippas, turbans and other headgear on transit cops, they’re back. But neither would it be at all accurate to depict a world of happy headgear-wearing in which Quebec was the lone exception. Landry should have stuck with the Irish: you still won’t see a police officer with a turban over there.

But support for Quebec’s bill (if it gets tabled in a form resembling the leaks) could come from a lot closer to home. Don Macpherson reports on a weekend cartoon poll from the cartoon polling firm Forum Research, which doesn’t quite paint a stark contrast between unanimous Quebec support for the charter and unanimous English Canadian hatred for the thing. It’s 58%-33% in favour in Quebec — and narrowly opposed across the country. Forum Research found that among Conservative voters, more supported the notions in the rumoured Charter than opposed it.

I’d be happy to see a poll on these matters from a more reputable firm, but in the meantime, Forum’s makes a rough sort of sense. Of course there are plenty of Quebec voices opposed to the notion that public display of religious affiliation is somehow offensive to anyone else; those voices include Charles Taylor, whom Landry was always happy to quote when Taylor was saying something Landry found useful. And of course sentiments like the ones in the rumoured Quebec charter are not unheard-of in the “rest of Canada.” Here are old columns and on-air bits by Ezra Levant, Michael Coren and Brian Lilley struggling with questions around public display of religious affiliation. It’s worth noting that they reach varying conclusions. I like Lilley’s social-conservative argument for classical liberalism: I may not like what you do to express your faith, but I can’t be certain you’ll like what I do to express mine, so let’s just agree to leave hands off.

Let’s not kid ourselves about why the PQ is doing this. For years the party sought new recruits from immigrant, ethnic and even anglophone minorities. The fruits of that strategy were always meagre, and in 2007 under André Boisclair, its most cosmopolitan leader, the PQ had its worst result in 40 years, blindsided in part by Mario Dumont and a party advocating the same sort of nitpicking cultural engineering the PQ has tried, ever since, to appropriate.

There is a rich debate, in French, among Quebecers, over the wisdom of the Values Charter. Portraying the debate as a polarized dialogue of the deaf between Quebec and “English Canada” is not only a key pillar of PQ strategy; it is the only meagre hope of salvation Pauline Marois’s wretched government can find.


Quebec’s latest turban controversy

  1. The debate is hardly rich even if it cuts across french/anglo lines. So far what upsets me the most is the idea zra and Coren are representatives of the “Rest of Canada” :)

  2. Glad to see that at least Brian Lilley understands that freedom means freedom for everyone.

  3. Some francophone voices (2,3,4,5) are critical of this new PQ strategy. For example, Louise Harel (former PQ minister and Speaker of the National Assembly) made a valid point saying that one may strongly believe in a neutral and secular state however “values cannot be legislated.”(1)

    I believe it still exists twisted perception between different sections of Quebec society. However, the role of our government is to show leadership in staying above divisions and foster guidelines to help everyone being integrated in society. This is not what this governemnt is doing, they want to stir the pot for political reasons.

    It is strangely happening the same week we celebrate ” I have a dream…” 50th.

    Christian Martel
    Brossard, QC






    • Values can’t be legislated… so what’s all this gay marriage business the world has been debating for a decade now? And women’s rights? civil rights? sexual norms? Values are legislated. Quite often.

  4. Ooooooh i hate you Wells…making me agree wholeheartedly with a character like Liiley.[ at least you’re in the same boat] I’m pleasantly surprised actually.
    Surely one of the the questions we should ask ourselves at a time like this [ of any govt not just Marois] is…what is the problem they’re seeking to fix?
    I’m damned if i can remember the last time i was worried my government employee, be he clerk or cop, was going to start preaching me or attempting to rip down the wall between church and state, because they happened to be wearing a kippa, turban or sporting a cross.
    I’m more then willing to give Quebecers some leeway, since i’m told the great darkness of Duplessis and an overbearing church left a deeper mark than any of us in “English” Canada lay claim to; perhaps we’re merely seeing that playing out – i hope so.
    Agreed, let’s not give Marois and her gang of ethnocentric miscreants any more rocks to chuck at Canada then is absolutely necessary.

    • apples…organges.
      The ‘memory’ of the oppressive Church is almost gone; the handiness of it as an excuse for bigotry…well, that’s eternel.

      • Yeah well,there’s a lot of it going around, not at all limited to QC.

  5. It’d be helpful to see a generational breakdown of those polling numbers. I’d be particularly curious to see how solid those numbers are for the values charter in the younger members of the Francophone community. I imagine it has solid support even there but where’s the trend? I also can’t see this being a priority among Quebecers, which is factor that ought to put a crimp in this.

  6. Good post on the political cynicism behind the proposed Charter.

  7. Reinforces the ambivalence that many of us in the RoC feel toward Quebec; admiring/loving so much of Quebec culture, disgusted with the apparent narrow-mindedness of zealots in the PQ.

    • There’s ugly everywhere, from Herouxville to Wild Rose.

    • Well, the way you in the ROC see the world, there would be no Québec culture in a few decades. Just one large refugee camp, from St. Johns to Vancouver.

  8. Yeah, it’s just like in the ROC, except that Ezra Levant and his ilk are on the extreme, marginal Right and will never hold power.

    Quebec is at least a generation behind the ROC in terms of accepting diversity; but then they hardly experience it outside Montreal. But its nativist intellectuals, by mistaking their nation for oppressed Nicaraguans in the 60’s and 70’s, have managed never to leave the 1920’s.

    The scandal here is not “Political Party Resorts to Xenophobia.” The scandal is how many would-be liberals are actually comrades of Le Pen, whether they know it or not.

    • pathetic hipser cultural Marxist nonsense.

  9. When you need Bernie to come to the rescue, you know you are already in trouble. The PQ is rolling the dice on this one, if they get it wrong, they risk disappearing altogether, if they get it right they may survive another 6-10 months minority gov’t.

  10. I am an English Quebecer who would happily support a modified version of this law. I start from two premises: (1) the state should not either promote or criticize any religious belief (it must be secular) and (2) the state must equally represent every citizen. Given this, then religious symbols should not be associated with the state (either its instititutions or its representatives). After all, the purpose of a religious “symbol” is not to remind the individual wearing it what religion he supports, its to either tell others what religion he supports (thus promoting it) or else to draw a distinction between his beliefs and those outside. Individual citizens are free to do any of these things but not the state.
    Why I don’t support the current proposal is because it makes exceptions (like a huge crucifix in the National Assembly or “small” crucifixes on government employees) that show that the purpose behind the proposal is not really to uphold the propositions I have given, but rather to encourage assimilation into the majority Catholic “culture” of Quebec.

    • After all, the purpose of a religious “symbol” is not to remind the
      individual wearing it what religion he supports, its to either tell
      others what religion he supports (thus promoting it) or else to draw a
      distinction between his beliefs and those outside.


      This is by no means universally true.

      This is part of the problem, people making broad sweeping assumptions about the way people “are” and the reasons for what they do.

    • I agree with your two points – but not necessarily with the way you think they should be applied.

      First when the RCMP allowed the wearing of turbans, I was opposed because I did not think it appropriate for uniformed law enforcement officers to display symbols other than the state’s. I thought the display of religious symbols could, in certain circumstances, result in a dangerous escalation of tensions [around that time there were tensions that sometimes led to violence between Hindus and Sikhs in BC].

      As far as I know, no such escalations ever occurred. I have also come to believe that many see this accommodation as a symbol of the state’s dedication to multicultural and religious equality.

      And so I now think that allowing the display of religious symbols, such as the turban, if properly incorporated into the uniform and showing respect for both religion and state, is not a promotion of any belief above another as much as it is a quiet display of our government’s acceptance of all faiths.

      As to Quebec’s proposed approach: definitely a regressive step.

    • @Rhinanthus there are many problems with your argument:

      1) Your definition of what a secular state does is flawed, at least if you consider Canada to be a secular state. Canada regularly promotes, funds and celebrates religious groups. It tries to do it in a fair way, but the claim that the state ‘should not promote or criticize any religious belief’ is not how Canada has done things. Canada actively promotes most mainstream religious communities.

      2) Even if a secular state wanted to be completely neutral, this would be impossible. Imagine we only had two religions in Canada, Sikhs and Hindus. Then a uniform without a turban would have to be interpreted as anti-Sikh. And a uniform with turbans would have to be interpreted as pro-Sikh. The only neutral solution would be to allow the employee to make the decision for themselves. You may think of this as a silly example, but this is exactly how the religious minority perceives a religious symbol ban. And perception is critical to govt. neutrality.

      3) Minorities need to be given special protection/consideration. This is codified in our charter and laws. You may think of this as being the opposite of neutral, but it is a compromise to deal with the natural hurdles faced by minorities in the face of external pressure (by the majority).

      4) Religion is not something you ‘support’. It’s something you believe. Individuals who are hired by the state should be allowed to have these symbols. Especially if the job they do is not involve public enforcement for the state. For example, a fireman (or govt. office worker) does not act publicly to enforce state rules. He just happens to be funded by the state, but his role is simply to put out fires. Whereas a police officer is an enforcement agent of the state. Only a small number of jobs fall into this ‘neutral uniform’ category, and within those jobs there are counterarguments as well.

    • The purpose of the kippa is to remind the individual that god is always above him (that’s why it’s worn in the head), so it is for the individual wearing it. Religious people who work for the state do not force their beliefs on others.

  11. Make a deal with Canada. Scrap bill 101, and allow the
    English language everywhere but keep the ban on Muslim religious rights.

  12. There should be no tolerance for discrimination in Canada whether you’re a Calgarian or a Quebecer , there should be cosquenses

  13. An argument I hear a lot, I believe put forward by Minister Drainville, is that the state already forbids its employees from wearing symbols of partisan politics – pins, t-shirts, etc. It has been accepted for a long time that in the name of preserving neutrality the state can thus restrict the freedom of its employees, so why in the name of neutrality and secularity could it not forbid its employees from wearing religious signs?
    It is quite entertaining to follow this debate, starting with the most partisan of politicians giving us all lessons on neutrality of the state. Is it not in the laws that they write and vote on that the state is or isn’t neutral? .

    • Have you ever wondered what is under the turban of a Sikh man? It is very, very long hair. He cannot just leave the turban off, unless they are suggesting he dons a wig, which might not fit.
      I remember attending a sociology class when a prof told us the story of a young man who wore a “dew rag” (which gangs often wear). However, this young man was in Calgary and he was told at a restaurant that he had to remove his dew rag. He did. His wore his dew rag because his scalp had been ripped off by a black bear in Banff National Park. The restaurant owner asked him to put it back on.
      Removing some of the “symbols” of religion aren’t as simple as not wearing a cross around your neck.

  14. This article is about the bla bla landry told after the Toronto Star bla bla on a chart of value we know little about. Why dont you discuss or explain or debate on the chart of value itself. Also you give little information about what the. Toronto Star said – as if it was a sure value – I mean if the Toronto Star said it is shamefull it must be right ! Right ? But the key pillar of this article is to sell papers – and Quebec bashing is a very good seller. And by the way I dont agree about this chart of value mainly because it would hierarchise fondamentals rights. For exemple you cant prioritise sex equality fondamental right over religious fondamental right. It would have been nice to explain those things instead of this Quebec/ Roc mutual ignorance.

  15. The last line is good.

    It’s true that the debate is not as one-sided as people portray, although I do agree with Lilley’s classical liberalism approach. People should be free to express themselves as they see fit, although of course there are always limits, such as public nudity.

    But if I were a Sikh and I wanted to wear a turban, then I wouldn’t want someone telling me I couldn’t. It’s not right.