It may be the arrival in North America of France’s aggressive and xenophobic form of ‘secularism,’ or it may herald the death throes of a failing Parti Quebecois. The secessionist party of Canada’s French-speaking province this week proposed a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ which would ban public workers–teachers, bureaucrats, hospital workers–from wearing religious symbols. More concretely, it would ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves. The proposal has been widely derided in Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Quebec premier Pauline Marois’ project was launched at a moment when support for Quebec separatism seems to be on the wane, eroding the raison d’etre of her party. Rising immigration and the resulting doubts among the native population seem to provide an opening for a different, more nouvelle France, brand of politics. While a few local papers have welcomed the reopening of the debate around Muslim immigrants, Marois’ proposed charter has been publicly rejected by unions, which referred to it as a ‘headgear witch hunt,’ by the heads of every local municipality in Montreal and by a broad spectrum of politicians.
“AN IMPORTED CONCEPT”
Photo: Saadiya in Hijab Fashion
The sycophants of secularism who are trying to import the French model here do not understand history: their own or that of France.
Secularism in France was the result of a century of vicious fighting between the partisans of a monarchical ancien regime vigorously supported by the Church and the army, and democrats who were seeking to uphold the accomplishments of the 1789 revolution. The entire 19th century was marked by bloody confrontations between the ‘skullcaps’ and the republicans.
Quebec’s history is entirely distinct. A long submission to the Church followed by a very quiet ‘revolution.’ All it took was a flick of the finger (in the form of the peaceful rebellion of the new elites) to bring down the already eroded edifice, without even token resistance from the clergy.
There has never been a deep-rooted and ongoing tradition of secularism in Quebec. Even in the days of the Quiet Revolution, the Quebec Secular Movement never consisted of more than a handful of people, and it was soon forgotten. An interesting fact: the same man, Daniel Baril, has been the group’s spokesman for-forty years! Not much new blood there.
Quebec’s discovery of the concept of secularism coincides rather precisely with the ‘reasonable accommodations ‘crisis’ (which was entirely manufactured by certain loudmouth demagogues). We don’t need to look far to see why. It is the visceral reaction of a homogenous society to the arrival of visible immigrant minorities.
Secularism makes for spacious pretexts, wide enough to serve as cover for xenophobia. This is certainly what has happened in France, where the far-right leader Marine Le Pen needs no word but this to justify her anti-immigrant platform. Islamophobia, which it must be said is more widespread in France than in Quebec, hides behind fine notions like gender equality. And so what if the main victims of this absurd hijab-hunt are the women least able to fend for themselves. And so what, too, if this suspicious infatuation with secularism pushes freedom of religion out of its way; a freedom that we should remember is as important as the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression.
Secularism is no longer a liberal political ideal in France, any more than it is in Quebec-the proof here being that [Leftist pro-sovereignty political party] Quebec Solidaire has publicly disavowed the Parti Quebecois charter project. A signal that this debate is not at all a question of sovereignists vs non-sovereignists, but rather about two visions of society, one that focused on openness and tolerance, the other on fear and seclusion.
Quebec should continue to look for inspiration from France, but not on this topic. That would be aping the worst parts of France, in particular its indifference toward many of the individual freedoms that are held so dearly in North America.
France has passed several laws which restrict people’s freedom to express politically incorrect opinions. France, a great defender of ‘cultural diversity’ (when it comes to protecting its national cinema industry) refuses to recognize regional languages (Basque, Breton, Occitan, and the like) which have survived on its territory despite centuries of oppression. Among the tens of thousands of elected officials at all levels, the number of Muslims might be counted on the fingers of one hand. After banning the yarmulke and the headscarf among schoolchildren, the state has now banned the very rare women who wear the face-veiling niqab from all public spaces. The police are thus forced to stop them for identity checks, a useless and persecutory repressive measure that has already led to explosive confrontations.
Quebec’s underlying culture is not the same as that of France. It is the culture of a North American society with liberal traditions. And that is why a Quebec secularism can only be a moderate one, open and inclusive, along the lines of the Bouchard-Taylor report.
“XENOPHOBIA HAS DEEP ROOTS IN QUEBEC”
Photo: Firdaus Hadzri. Flickr
On the Canadian commentary site iPolitics, Tasha Kheiriddin called the proposed charter a step in Quebec’s long history of xenophobia.
What a year it’s been for Quebec’s xenophobes. First they revelled in Pastagate, which saw language police ordering an Italian restaurant to alter its menu because it was too… Italian.
Then came Stay-at-home Soccer, wherein the head of the Quebec soccer federation told Sikh children to “play in their backyard” if they would not remove their turbans.
And finally, Bad for Business, in which a government agency refused to allow a teenage entrepreneur (who is francophone) to register a commercial name that was “too English”.
But those events seem like mere appetizers compared to the main course, served up in the Journal de Montreal this week. In a move critics are comparing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation, Parti Quebecois Premier Pauline Marois is planning to ban all forms of religious expression in the public service. Kippas, crosses, turbans, headscarves, veils and Star Trek pins would all be verboten.
OK, I made the last one up. But it highlights the utter absurdity of the plan, which seeks to make the public service ‘neutral’ and devoid of any symbolism which might make people ‘uncomfortable’. Never mind if the wearing of such symbols doesn’t actually compromise the ability to do one’s job.
Why would the PQ think it can go this far? Because Quebecers say it can. An online poll commissioned by the government from Leger Marketing in May 2013 found that seventy-one per cent of Quebecers believe defining limits to religious freedoms protects Quebec values. Fifty-four per cent agreed with this statement: “We must ban all religious symbols in the public square. Religion is a private matter and should occur only in private.” Sixty-eight per cent think that religious accommodations “cost taxpayers a lot of money”, while 69 per cent think they “affect the proper functioning of public institutions”. And 50 to 74 per cent – depending on the category of public servant involved – believe it is “unacceptable” for government employees such as police officers, prison guards, doctors, judges, daycare workers and even bus drivers to wear religious symbols.
Xenophobia has deep roots in Quebec, its most frequent targets being Jewish and anglophone communities. Examples include quotas for Jewish students at McGill University in the 1920s, PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau’s rant about losing the 1995 referendum to “money and the ethnic vote” and the firebombing of a Jewish school as recently as 2007. In a survey conducted by Leger Marketing that same year, 59 per cent of Quebecers described themselves as racist or somewhat racist, compared to 47 per cent of other Canadians.
Quebec also is the only province in Canada which has grappled officially with the notion of “reasonable accommodations”. Five years ago, a provincial commission headed by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard held 22 regional forums across Quebec and received over 900 briefs. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission recommended, among other things, that “judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and the president and vice-president of the National Assembly be prohibited from wearing religious signs. Teachers, public servants, health professionals and all other government employees be authorized to do so.”
The commission was convened against a background of headline-making cases involving people having to remove facial veils to participate in college exams, or to vote – something which has been discussed in the Rest of Canada as well. But there is a profound difference between asking someone to uncover his or her face and banning all forms of religious expression. Showing one’s face is necessary for identification, security and, in the case of an oral language exam, evaluation purposes. The Muslim community itself is divided over whether the full-veil niqab is necessary for religious observance.
More shocking than the leaks from Quebec City, however, is the lack of any condemnation from Ottawa. To date, and to his credit, only Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has come out against the PQ’s proposals. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair dismissed the leaked report as a “trial balloon”, while the Prime Minister’s Office stated only that “it’s a debate that will occur at the provincial level.”
Really? So if Quebec wanted to ban the practice of religion outright, that would be a “provincial” matter too?
What hypocrisy. Only a few weeks ago, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird rushed to condemn Putin for his anti-gay stance. And just this year the Tories trumpeted the creation of their Office of Religious Freedom. Its mission includes “advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat, opposing religious hatred and intolerance, and promoting pluralism abroad.”
What about here at home? Are religious minorities living in Quebec less deserving of religious freedom than, say, Iraqi Kurds or Chinese Christians? Thankfully, they don’t face the same level of persecution, but in a western democracy where religious freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution one would think that any move down the slippery slope to denying religious liberty would be met with condemnation and resistance.
The only saving grace is that the PQ holds only a minority, and the opposition parties are refusing to float its xenophobic balloon into the lawbooks. But if Marois had a majority, all bets would be off.
Would Ottawa stay silent then?
– Tasha Kheiriddin
“AN UNNECESSARY, INTOLERANT, HYPOCRITICAL, CYNICAL AND DESPERATE INITIATIVE”
Photo: Hijab Fashion.
The Montreal Gazette‘s editors saw in the charter proposal a desperate attempt by the Parti Quebecois to ward off irrelevancy in advance of elections.
There was little in Tuesday’s presentation of a proposed Charter of Quebec Values by Bernard Drainville, the provincial minister responsible for democratic institutions, that had not been previously leaked to the media.
Nor was there anything in the minister’s presentation that effectively negated critiques that it is an unnecessary, intolerant, hypocritical, and cynical initiative from a desperate Parti Quebecois government reduced to exploiting fear in hopes of staving off defeat in an election that could come next spring.
One justification given for the supposed need for a values charter is that some instances of religious accommodation have given rise to a “profound discomfort” in Quebec. Yet what there has been of these have been piddling instances, blown out of proportion, over parking exemptions on religious holidays or specialty food served at a sugar shack.
In fact, such incidents are rare, and life in an increasingly multi-ethnic Quebec is on the whole admirably and reassuringly harmonious. The greatest discomfort with accommodating minorities tends to be registered among older Quebecers living in regions where minorities are few and far between, and where, incidentally, potential PQ electoral gains run strongest.
The government maintains that its driving purpose is to assure the equality of men and women and the neutrality of the state. Yet gender equality is already enshrined in law and charter, both federal and provincial, and in the past half century, the religious neutrality of the Quebec state has been entrenched.
Except, of course, in the highest chamber of the Quebec state, the National Assembly, where the dominant symbol of the Christian religion will continue to hold a place of ostentatious prominence. The government justifies this hypocrisy with the expedient of calling it by another name – i.e., not a religious symbol, but a patrimonial artifact.
Yes, there are reasonable grounds for refusing some religious accommodations. It is acceptable and in keeping with established custom in this country for people giving and receiving state services to be required to show their faces in full. But such matters can be settled without the blaring of political trumpets and political sensationalism.
As for restricting the wearing of “ostentatious” religious dress and accoutrements by public employees, there are no reports of civil servants, nurses or teachers who wear hijabs, kippas or visible crucifixes allowing their expressed religious affiliation to adversely affect the service they provide.
So far, the government has furnished only flimsy anecdotal evidence to justify the need for a charter at all. At times, the government has seemed positively Orwellian in its twisted logic – by asserting, among other things, that unfettered tolerance leads to violent civil strife. Or it has looked just plainly ridiculous, as with Premier Pauline Marois’s assertion last Thursday that daycare workers in hijabs are a social threat because head scarves might incite children to embrace religious practices.
Drainville says a charter would be “an immense advance” for Quebec society. It would be, on the contrary, a regression to a Quebec of yesteryear. But the charter isn’t about policy needs. It’s about the PQ’s political needs. It’s trying to engineer a more sectarian political climate in Quebec for its own potential political profit.
“THE ETHNIC SUPREMACY OF OLD-STOCK FRENCH-CANADIANS”
Photo: Azhan Abdullah. Flickr
Gazette columnist Don MacPherson writes that the charter is so full of exceptions and holes that it is clearly not actually about secularism. Rather, it signals the Parti Quebecois’ definitive turn toward right wing ethno-nationalism.
If the Parti Quebecois government’s proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” was really about the religious neutrality of public institutions under provincial jurisdiction, it would be a Swiss style of secularism.
That is, “Swiss” as in Swiss cheese.
The “charter,” as outlined in a discussion paper made public here Tuesday, would consist of vague rules that would be interpreted subjectively and inconsistently, and with many exceptions.
So, for example, public employees would be allowed to wear visible religious symbols if the symbols were small in size, but not if they were “conspicuous,” whatever that means, to the local administrator making the decision.
Depending on the interpretation of the word “conspicuous,” the same symbol might be allowed in one office, but not the one next door.
There would be one rule for the boss, and another for the workers.
Provincial civil servants would be forbidden from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols because the government is supposed to be neutral.
But elected officials at all levels up to the premier, the head of the provincial administration, would remain free to wear them.
Other public employees would be allowed to wear even “conspicuous” symbols if they worked for any of the hundreds of institutions, including every municipality and borough in the province, that would have the right to opt out of the provision indefinitely. The exemption would be limited to five years at a time, but could be renewed an indefinite number of times.
School boards could also opt out, even though Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville told reporters schoolchildren need to be “protected” against the sight of a teacher wearing a hijab because they are “vulnerable” and “susceptible to influence.”
Drainville confirmed that he had rejected advice simply to prohibit all visible religious symbols, regardless of size, because he wanted to allow small ones.
So the small crosses worn by devout Catholics would be allowed, while the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippa and Sikh turban would not.
Similarly, Drainville said the conspicuous crucifix in the National Assembly and other Catholic symbols and names would be protected by one of several amendments to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
These amendments, Drainville’s discussion paper said, would limit the “concepts of accommodation and excessive constraint” in the Quebec rights charter.
That “excessive constraint” is, apparently, the rights charter’s protection of religious freedom and against discrimination on religious grounds, in the private sector as well as the public one.
For, with the exception of the rules on religious symbols, the values charter would also apply to the private sector, where it would set hurdles intended to prevent religious accommodations.
The values charter, as described in the discussion paper, contains two damning tacit admissions.
First, by allowing so many institutions, theoretically representing the entire population, to opt out of its prohibition of “conspicuous” religious symbols, it admits the absence of a consensus on what “Quebec values” actually are.
And secondly, by establishing a double standard for religious symbols, favouring those of the Catholic religion over all others, it admits that it is not really about secularism.
One of the few Quebec commentators who supports the PQ values charter, Mathieu Bock-Cote, wrote on his Journal de Montreal blog that the crucifix in the Assembly is a symbol not only of religion, but also of identity.
“It represents the symbolic predominance of the historic French-speaking majority in the public space,” he wrote.
That’s what the PQ values charter is about. It’s about the supremacy of old-stock French-Canadians, and the ethnic nationalism characteristic of right-wing parties elsewhere in the world.
- Don MacPherson Translated from French by International Boulevard
12 Sep 2013