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Unpacking Quebec’s charter of values, then junking it

By Susan Riley      
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GATINEAU, QUE.—Of all the shameful moments in the brief, intense Quebec election campaign that ended on the weekend, the worst were the Parti Québécois’ flailing attempts to defend its chilling charter of values.

No one takes issue with the charter’s ambition: to affirm the equality of men and women and the separation of church and state. That, and nervous awareness of the cultural wars between conservative Muslims and the secular state in Europe, is probably why the measure garnered significant, if qualified, public support. 

But the charter’s codicil—an unneeded, illogical and baldly discriminatory dress code for pubic servants—amounts to officially sanctioned intolerance. It is unworthy of Quebec and of Canada. We can only hope it dies (which it probably will) no matter who wins when ballots are counted tonight.

This dress code was inspired by public disapproval of a small minority of burka and niqab-wearing Muslim women, mostly in Montreal, and a few past cultural clashes involving religious conservatives. Although the primary targets are Muslims (notably, Muslim women), to provide a veneer of even-handedness the code was extended to cover all “ostentatious” religious symbols.

It was never explained how a Jewish doctor, wearing a kippa while performing abdominal surgery, is giving offence. How exactly, is he violating Quebec values? How is a turban-wearing Sikh who is a desk clerk in an automobile licence office undermining the equality of men and women? And how many people of sound mind—within, or outside of, provincial government offices—wear conspicuous crucifixes these days?

If any provincial employee refuses to serve women customers—a frequently-voiced fear for charter supporters—he could be fired for failing to respect employment norms. Period. What he, or she, is wearing is beside the point. (Excluding a full face covering, which, all parties agree, is unacceptable for security and communication reasons.)

But the code is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive. As Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and others have pointed out, women are the most likely victims of this measure intended to ensure equality between the sexes. It isn’t the Muslim man who insists his wife, daughter, or sister, wear a niqab in public who loses his public service job—it is the woman, in the unlikely event that she is even allowed to work outside the home.

As for the hijab, or headscarf, many young Muslim women wear it willingly as an affirmation of their faith and culture. It is hard to understand how a hijab-wearing police officer—a bogyman raised frequently by Péquistes and Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault—is a menace to anyone except the driver that she stops for speeding. Elsewhere, she would be celebrated as a symbol of workplace diversity.

As the absurdity, and pettiness, of its central project became more obvious, the PQ reacted with confusion. Montreal PQ candidate, Evelyne Abitol said a Jewish doctor who refused to remove his kippa would be fired from a public hospital. PQ luminary Jean-Francois Lisée insisted no one would lose their job as a result of the charter, a key condition of its popular support. (But don’t bother to apply if you are unwilling to abandon your turban.)

Premier Pauline Marois further muddied a deliberately obscure position, noting, “we hope no one loses a job” because of the charter. However, she added, if someone does, her government stands ready to help them “re-orient” towards a job in the private sector.

So there is no social danger, apparently, in receiving a prescription from a private sector pharmacist wearing a hijab, whereas Quebecers must be protected from such an outrage in a public hospital.

That cannot have comforted 89-year-old Quebec feminist Janette Bertrand, who fretted that rich Muslim students from McGill could interfere with aquafit classes at her condo unless the charter is passed, because of their unwillingness to swim with women. No one, notably Marois, reminded Bertrand that the charter doesn’t apply to private life—much less to imaginary rich Muslims. Marois’ silence spoke volumes. 

Say this for the PQ, though: they are not racist. In the dying days of a dying campaign, Lisée announced measures to expedite immigration to Quebec for French-speaking (and largely Muslim) North Africans. His party, he said, is planning an anti-racism campaign to help the newcomers integrate into a “welcoming” and open Quebec. That is just weird.

Originally, the PQ planned to highlight its secular charter, to ride this divisive policy to majority. But debate over referendums, the economy and corruption pushed the charter to the margins. 

No matter the verdict tonight, the PQ would be wise to drop the idea altogether. If they don’t, it suggests something darker than cynicism is at work—something that will confound and embarrass future generations of Quebecers when they read their history.

Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist. 



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