“L’argent et la vote ethnique!” It was almost twenty years ago when premier Jacques Parizeau lashed out at what he saw as the lead culprits in the demise of his push for a sovereign Quebec. If you need a refresher on the 1995 referendum, the coverage has been made available on the CBC website. After uttering those famous words, Parizeau made an ambiguous comment about the Parti Québécois protecting Quebec from the future vengeance he expected from his opponents. I would contend he was in fact fixated on how he and his party would find their own path to vengeance. Though no longer led by Parizeau, it appears the PQ has found its vessel of revenge: Quebec’s proposed Values Charter.
To review the essence of the policy, public employees will be forbidden to wear ‘ostentatious’ symbols of religion when on the job. Disallowed items include hijabs, turbans and kippas, as well as larger than usual crosses (see below). Allowed items are smaller more moderate symbols such as a small cross on a necklace, or a Star of David ring. Though the charter has been introduced under the pretense of conveying neutrality in the public service, these rules clearly show a partiality to Quebec’s Christian majority. A large cross like the one depicted would not be expected to be worn by even the most devout Christian, and it would certainly not be seen as a requirement in demonstrating one’s faith. In the case of the other disallowed symbols – the hijab, the turban, the kippah – these are clearly required displays of faith among a large number of the adherents of non-Christian faiths. As a result, the rules ask very little of the majority, and far too much of the minorities. Neutrality is not what this charter represents.
Further evidence of this partiality comes with the glaring exemption to this supposed demonstration of neutrality: the crucifix is to remain in Quebec’s National Assembly. This exception has been made because this symbol is “emblematic of Quebec cultural heritage”. This speaks to the charter’s partiality rather than its intended neutrality: the crucifix is part of Quebec cultural heritage, symbols of other religions are not. If anything these bans and exemptions are precisely backwards of how neutrality could be effectively demonstrated. In representing the government of Quebec, it is the National Assembly that should be seen as a neutral institution. It and other edifices of public service should be seen as neutral without religious symbols. Furthermore, in being neutral they should allow the individual to practice their own beliefs without hindrance. The argument that all individuals must adhere to complete neutrality and not display their own beliefs while providing a public service suggests that we live in a society that is not at all tolerant to the varied religions and cultures that are represented within our population. I don’t know about you, but when I am approached by someone wearing a hijab, turban or kippah, my first impression is not that they are trying to force their religion upon me. In fact, I don’t recall ever getting that impression in the slightest. I am saddened to think that there are others that do. Unfortunately, leaders in Quebec have not always been ones to support multiculturalism.
In the aftermath of the charter’s initial introduction, I am somewhat surprised that it has not be soundly denounced by the masses. In Quebec, the results suggest support and opposition for the charter is relatively balanced: 43% support, while 42% oppose. Support actually grows significantly among francophones as 49% support the charter, while only 34% oppose it. In the rest of Canada, acceptance of the policy is much lower, with only 20% in favour, while 44% oppose, and the balance are unsure about the proposal. This uncertainty is not surprising, as there is surely a sympathetic ear for initiatives to divide church and state but a need for closer inspection of the charter’s policy and true intentions. Thankfully, the past few days have provided a wake-up call for the PQ government. Despite the balance in support and opposition of the charter itself, confidence in the government itself has dropped. The opposition Liberals now lead the PQ in popular support 42% to 35% (compared to a 32% to 31% edge the PQ achieved in last year’s election). Though this may have led to some softening of the PQ stance, let us not believe that the fight is over.
The people of Quebec are very proud of their culture. They have every reason to be. Though I do not live it as they do, I am proud to be part of a Canada that includes Quebec as a fundamental component. Given there is so much to cherish in Quebec culture, I am saddened that the attempts to protect it continually impede it from flourishing. Celebrating the culture is the answer, not iron-fisted attempts to assimilate others into it. Many years have gone by since Parizeau’s bitter words, but those same attitudes are the driving force that has led to this terribly divisive policy. Dismayed as I am with the introduction of this policy, I am satisfied that it has once again shown the true colours of the Parti Québécois. What’s more, I am also confident that another long-storied trait of the Parti Québécois will soon surface as well – always losing the big fight.
ADDENDUM: In light of the recent resignation from his seat in Parliament, it is worth pointing out the courageous and poignant words of the Honourable Bob Rae during the coverage of the referendum back in 1995 (from the same clip at 18:25). I always found Rae an honest politician who stood for what is right and effectively communicated his positions. If circumstances had worked out differently, he would have made an outstanding Prime Minister.