The secessionist Parti Québécois (PQ), leading a minority government, is attempting to bring in a secular (laïque) program similar to that in France, barring the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols by government employees, employees of government-funded organizations, such as hospitals and day-care centers, and persons seeking government services.
Because the three opposition parties all disapprove of the program to one degree or another, it cannot pass, at least in its present form. However, the PQ may yield to changes put forward by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a conservative party, or it may want to stand pat and use the issue to try to rally support when it calls the next election.
Even if such a law eventually passes, it seems clear that the courts would find it in violation of the Canadian constitution’s provision guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion. However, there is a provision in the constitution known as the notwithstanding clause, which gives a province the power to pass an act even if the courts find it to be unconstitutional. While Premier Pauline Marois says that she will not resort to such a power, there is no guarantee that she will not change her mind.
The issue must be seen in the light of history and of city versus hinterland. While the PQ denies that Quebec is a society marked by prejudice, a 2008 opinion poll by the public opinion research organization Léger Marketing tells a different story. That survey found, for instance, that while seven percent of Canadians outside Quebec had an unfavorable attitude toward Jews, 27 percent of Quebecers did. For Muslims, the figures were 33 percent in English Canada and 49 percent in Quebec.
Prejudice is more characteristic of the hinterland than of a city such as Montreal. All mayors of Montreal and surrounding suburbs have spoken against the proposed charter. Thus, prejudice is greater where minorities are rare. In 2007 Hérouxville (population 1,340) suddenly gained national—if not international—notoriety for its code of conduct for immigrants. No stoning or burning women to death, no female genital mutilation, opposition to religious dietary requirements, no face coverings, except for Halloween, etc. There were no Muslims, Jews, or Sikhs in the community. In order to prevent other locals in the hinterland from following suit, then-Premier Jean Charest created a commission to study the matter and get public input.
The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, headed by a separatist sociologist and a Catholic philosopher, held hearings across the province and produced a report that recommended that judges, prosecuting attorneys, police, prison guards, and the president and vice president of the National Assembly should not wear religious symbols. Everyone else, they said, should be permitted to do so. Both Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor oppose the PQ charter. At this time Quebecers are sharply divided, and polling results are very sensitive to wording and sampling procedures.
An August 26 Léger survey found 65 percent saying that there are “too many accommodations” for religious groups. A SOM survey released on September 10 based on online polling found 66 percent wanting religious symbols banned for public servants. That poll also had interesting results regarding tolerance. Fifty-eight percent think that there are too many immigrants in the province, and 76 percent would be uncomfortable on a bus or train with lots of people not of Quebec origin. Yet a CROP, Inc., poll released on September 18 found 45 percent against the proposed charter, with 42 percent favorable. In that poll 81 percent wanted people to have their faces visible.
One of the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations, which has been rejected by the PQ government, is the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly. Its presence, it has argued, is for historical and cultural reasons, not for religious reasons. That contention is simply wrongheaded. The crucifix was placed in the National Assembly by the Union Nationale government led by Maurice Duplessis, in 1936. It was part and parcel of Duplessis’ commitment to making Quebec a reactionary confessional state, in alliance with a reactionary Quebec Catholic Church. This alliance made it possible to withhold women’s right to vote till 1940. It also created the initiative for active persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau sided with striking miners in Asbestos, Quebec, Duplessis had the Catholic Church reassign him to pastoral work in a British Columbia nursing home. Duplessis used health transfer payments from the federal government to fund church-run institutions for abandoned children and others who were wards of the state. In these facilities children were falsely labeled mentally ill or mentally defective in order to get the funds. They were denied education and were mistreated and neglected. That, in a nutshell, is the historical meaning of the crucifix in the National Assembly.
Turning to the PQ dress code, it clashes with the government’s concern for protection of the French language and for women’s rights. Muslim Middle Eastern countries are a major source of French-speaking immigration. Yet it is this population group that is adversely affected. And as for women’s rights, the charter will drive Muslims out of the public sphere, leaving them cloistered at home.
Some Quebecers react to the hijab (a head scarf) and much rarer niqab (head and face) as reminders of old-fashioned nuns’ habits, which they identify with the Duplessis-church alliance. Others argue, as do many Muslims as well, that the Koran does not require such coverings. However, freedom of religion is not freedom for a religion. It is a freedom for individuals to act as they see fit in accord with their religious beliefs. Others argue that men impose the requirements, but it is clear that many of those wearing the garments choose to do so.
The proposed charter would also require people seeking services to follow the same dress code. Could a hijab-wearing woman apply for social assistance or legal aid? What would happen when a turban-wearing Sikh man presented himself at the hospital emergency department with a broken foot?
The charter would exempt small religious objects, but how small is small? We have the makings of a major controversy on that aspect of the charter alone. But how can we justify permitting small religious objects? If the need is to prevent public servants from influencing the people served, surely a small cross is as meaningful as a large one. And while Christians are not compelled to wear religious items, many Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs feel so compelled.
The issue has been extremely divisive both in the wider community and even in separatist circles. A number of prominent secessionists have come out in opposition to this legislation. We do not know the long-term outcome of this campaign, but the debate is already having nasty consequences. Premier Pauline Marois argues that the charter will promote unity around shared values, but at this point it has only stirred up conflict and bigotry. Someone has poured pig’s blood on a mosque, and hijab-wearing women are being harassed on the street.
Author: Reuel S. Amdur
Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.