The Quebec Values Charter: religious freedom or “militant secularism”

Heather Greene —  September 22, 2013 — 58 Comments

On September 17 a Mcgill University student released a video taken of a man and woman engaged in a heated argument on a crowded public bus. According to a Huffington Post report, the argument began when the woman who was wearing a hijab boarded the bus.  Almost immediately the man began to harass her, demanding that she “remove her headscarf or return to her country.”  The unpleasantries continued for almost ten minutes. The man accused her of being associated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and “criticiz[ed] the lack of Muslim integration into society.” In his “rant,” he said that Quebec’s Premier, Pauline Marois, would make her remove that “hat.”

The altercation on the bus is not an isolated incident. CTV, local Canadian television, reports that “more victims are coming forward” and the victims are not always individuals. On September 2 the Mosque in Saguenay was attacked and allegedly sprayed with pigs blood. The Muslim Council of Montreal said that it was distressed “to repeatedly see such attacks.”

What is fueling the increase in attacks? Many blame the usual suspects: Islamaphobia, xenophobia, bigotry and even racism.  However, the picture is more complicated than a single identifiable hatred of a particular religious or cultural group.  As implied by the man’s rant, the answer lies in the politics of Pauline Marois and le Parti Quebecois (PQ).

On September 10, Marois and Bernard Drainville, minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, revealed PQ’s plans to institute a Charter of Values (la chartre de valeur.)  According to the Minister’s web site, the Charter would do the following five things:

  1. Amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms
  2. Establish a duty of neutrality and reserve for all state personnel
  3. Limit the wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols
  4. Make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered when providing or receiving a state service
  5. Establish an implementation policy for State organizations.

The first statement seeks to “entrench the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of public institutions within the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.”  The second statement establishes, by law, “religious neutrality and reserve for all state personnel in carrying out their duties.” The fifth allows for the implementation of programs supporting the other points.  Taken alone, these statements appear to support Canada’s national policy of multi-culturalism.

The problem lays in points three and four. The proposed Values Charter would require all civil servants at any level including teachers and “personnel in ministries,” to remove their “conspicuous and overt religious symbols.”  This includes the hijabs, burqas, kippas (yarlmulke), turbans, large religious pendants and the like. If this proposal is passed, Marois and her party will have indeed forced some citizens to remove their “hats.”

Informational graphic from the Quebec government

Informational graphic from the Quebec government

Minister Drainville explains:

le gouvernement propose d’exprimer de manière officielle cette réalité : celle de la séparation de l’État et des religions. Sa démarche est guidée par les valeurs fondamentales qui animent la société québécoise : la laïcité des institutions de l’État, l’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes et la primauté du français. Parmi ces valeurs, seule la laïcité de l’État n’a pas encore été consacrée dans un texte législatif.

Loosely translated, the Quebec Government wants to legally establish the current and fundamental Quebec ideological and political reality of “the Separation of Church and State.” The work is guided by fundamental values that drive Quebec society: secularism of institutions, equality between men and women and the primacy of the French language. Among these values, only secularism hasn’t been legislated.

In tying the Values Charter to the successful legal protection of the French language, Parti Quebecquois is demonstrating a powerful interest in preserving Quebec’s unique culture.  While the reasoning may be “fierce nationalism,” one question remains – at what or whose expense? How far will the identity-politics go to preserve tradition?

A growing number of opponents call the Values Charter a basic attack on religious freedom. On September 14 people of many religions filled the streets of Montreal to protest the proposed legislation.  The event was organized by le Collectif Quebecois contre l’islamophobie. In attendance was, Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal who told the Montreal Gazette that he was “Delighted” at the turnout.

Jonathan Kay, an op-ed columnist for  Canada’s National Post  called Marois and PQ’s politics a “brand of militant secularism” accusing the party of “embracing a fallback position of prioritizing secular homogeneity over the demands of newly emergent minority religious communities.” Amanda Strong, a long-time Pagan Montreal resident, former editor of WynterGreene and WitchyWays blogger, agrees that the politics are a complicated chess match with a strong historical component.  She explains,

Before the 1960s, Catholicism permeated everything in Quebec from education to healthcare to policy making.  It was a horrible time in Quebec history and was especially oppressive to the French Quebecers. Then, French Quebecers rebelled…Quebec overtly moved towards a secular society. So Separation of church and state in this province is *very* emotionally charged.  

Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers

In response to claims of “militant secularism,” Minister Drainville counters by saying, “If this was a good idea for Catholics in the ’60s, why is it not a good idea for all religions fifty years later?”  Making a similar point, Brendan Myers, a Quebec Druidic Humanist and Philosophy Professor writes on his own blog, “Premier Pauline Marois’ Charter of Quebec Values doesn’t do much that hasn’t already been done.”

Since that cultural rebellion termed “the Quiet Revolution” accommodations have been made to in various situations. Over time the number and type of accommodations were called into question by Quebecers. In 2007, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission was formed to investigate the situation and make recommendations for “reasonable accommodations.”   Considering this background, the new Values Charter appears to be yet another step in a long drawn-out process of firmly establishing a secular Quebec society.

Natache Laland

Natache Laland

However, is mandated secularism really a step towards religious freedom? Natacha Lalande, a Wiccan practitioner from Magog Quebec, does’t believe it is. She says,

I am against some accommodations they have been doing like the story where a group asked others to leave the building so they could pray. It was disrespectful as their religion did not require they pray right before eating. But wearing a big pentagram necklace or a Jewish cap for example is not harmful to anybody. It is their right to wear them as they wish and should remove it only by their own decision and not be forced.

Amanda Strong agrees adding that, if passed, the Charter would not significantly affect most Pagans in Quebec. However, “the charter does affect … freedom of religious expression and, like any religion; we should be concerned about that. It also creates a culture of exclusion, which I feel is in direct contrast to most Pagan values of inclusion and acceptance.”

Additionally, Brendan Myers, who strongly supports the value of secularism, makes a very important observation. He says,

For a charter that supposedly is about secularism, there’s rather a lot of exceptions for “traditional Quebec values”. And most of those exceptions, suspiciously, involve Roman Catholic symbols, including the huge Catholic crucifix which hangs in the Quebec national assembly chamber, and the giant illuminated cross that stands at the summit of the mountain in Montreal. This strikes me as a little bit hypocritical.

A recent Time Magazine article made that very same point.  In response, Minister Drainville said, “Quebec is not a blank page…Building our future shouldn’t come at the expense of our past, our heritage.”

Are the Parti Quebecquois’ identity-politics solidifying “nationalism” by creating tension within its population? Is it capitalizing on an underlying Islamaphobia or xenophobia to promote its own agenda of separatism?

While those two questions are specific to Quebec, there are broader questions lurking beneath the surface. Where do we draw the lines for religious accommodations? Is it fair for Alberta to require Hutterites to have photos on their licenses? Should Canada have allowed Sikh Mounties to wear turbans?  When has the State gone too far?  When has religious expression placed a burden on society?  As we move further into this post-Christian era, these questions become more poignant. How do we support a healthy religious pluralism while retaining a connection to our cultural heritage without crippling our governing bodies to the point of being completely ineffective in maintaining our society?

 

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.