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Photo of a woman wearing a hijab with a Quebecois flag draped over her.
Photo by Ryan Remiorz/CP Images

Whose Values?

Does the proposed Quebec Charter guarantee a secular society, or more votes for the Parti Québécois?

Earlier this year, the Parti Québécois proposed a Charter of Quebec Values. If implemented, it would forbid government employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols and require people to have their face uncovered while providing or receiving a government service. Critics called the Charter an attack on minority religious rights. Scott Anderson asked Melissa Williams, a professor of political science, for her thoughts on the issue.

Why did the Parti Québécois to bring forward the Charter now?
I can’t help but see the timing of this issue as electoral calculus. The PQ have a minority, they were looking to get a majority, and the Charter was a way to gain an edge over the Coalition Avenir Québec in certain constituencies. It also seems calculated to draw attention away from economic issues, on which the PQ is not very well positioned.

Do you think this could be an effective tactic?
It’s a dangerous kind of politics. It’s dangerous not only because, if successful, it would represent a violation of rights to religious freedom under both Canadian and Quebec rights charters. It’s also dangerous because it stirs up negative sentiments about minorities and emboldens xenophobic attacks. Thankfully, I haven’t read of any physical violence directed against Quebec minorities, but there have been a number of recent incidents of harassment and verbal attacks. We know historically that whenever elites stir up these issues, attacks on minorities increase. I think this is very irresponsible of the leaders.

The extent to which Canadians should accommodate immigrants with different cultural and religious values has been debated for a while…
Yes, and in many of these debates Muslims have been the target, and electoral considerations drove the politics. In fact, every major party in Canada has, at one time or another, jumped on this sort of bandwagon since 9-11.

There was a big furor in 2005 over a proposal by an Islamic cleric to create a sharia arbitration tribunal under the Ontario Arbitration Act. This was lambasted in the media as an attempt to impose sharia law on Canadians – even though the Arbitration Act had already been used by religious communities for years to arrive at mediated decisions in family law matters.

It was only when it was invoked by a Muslim community in a high profile way, post 9-11, that it became a target of public contention. In the end, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty bowed to electoral pressures and banned all religious arbitration, against his own commission’s recommendations.

In Quebec, following the “Reasonable Accommodation” report on accommodations for religious and cultural minorities, Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s government rejected his commission’s recommendation. He instituted a requirement that new immigrants to Quebec sign an affirmation of Quebec values, and reaffirmed the crucifix in the National Assembly. There are other examples.

Does this signify that Canada is no longer a mosaic, where immigrants are encouraged to keep their own traditions?
I think there has been a shift since 9-11. It’s not that anti-Muslim attitudes, in particular, weren’t there prior to 9-11, but it has become more socially acceptable to express them. Multiculturalism is something that really distinguishes Canadian society and something of which Canadians have been rightly proud. But there’s also a real tension in Canada between being proud of our multicultural heritage on the one hand and being fearful of immigration on the other.

Are any other provinces likely to follow Quebec’s lead?
It’s important to note that public opinion polls show there is ambivalence about these issues right across Canada. I think we often congratulate ourselves on being multicultural and tolerant but in fact a significant minority of Canadians are supportive of the introduction of something like the Quebec Charter in their own province. It’s crucial to pay close attention to this, because we know that in times of economic insecurity and growing inequality a certain kind of xenophobic populism can take hold of democratic politics, in Canada as well as in Europe and the United States.

Do you see a connection between the Quebec Charter and Jacques Parizeau’s infamous claim that the 1995 referendum was defeated by “money and the ethnic vote”?
I do, though it’s ironic that Parizeau opposes this Charter. The problem sovereigntists have with multiculturalism and minority accommodation is that they fear it obscures Quebec’s unique status as the island of francophone identity in a sea of anglophone culture. And I think that’s a valid concern. But it’s a very difficult line to walk, given that Quebec is also an immigrant society and benefits from immigration.

It seems like a risky strategy if only a minority of Quebecers support this kind of thinking.
There are strange bedfellows in this politics. There are the secularists, who are arguing for a strong secular public sphere, there are feminists and there are traditional nationalists. Distinct arguments in support of the Charter flow from each of those positions. It doesn’t make for a coherent set of arguments as a whole. And when we explore each of those arguments it runs into difficulty. Nonetheless, intellectual coherence isn’t something that political strategists tend to worry about. My guess is that the PQ’s immediate goal is to gain a majority in the National Assembly and, once that is achieved, they can put the Charter on the back burner. But I don’t think the issue is going to go away.

In light of the Charter’s professed desire to keep religion out of the public sphere, do you think the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly should remain there?
That crucifix didn’t appear in the National Assembly until 1936 under Maurice Duplessis – as an affirmation of the union of the Quebec state with the Catholic Church. The Quiet Revolution later rejected that union, partly on feminist grounds. So for the crucifix to be defended in the context of a Charter whose justification is a strong doctrine of secularism and gender equality doesn’t ring true.

Gender equality is already protected under the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Why restate it in the Charter of Quebec Values?
I think among feminist circles there is genuine concern about the vulnerability of women within cultural or religious minorities. These feminists believe that particular religious traditions are committed to the inferiority of women. But that’s a caricature of religion: every tradition contains diverse strands, and we can’t infer beliefs from practices. Empirical studies of why some Muslim women choose to wear the hijab, for example, show that their motivations are varied and complex. Many consider it a kind of best practice for Muslim women that enables them to enter public space while following teachings concerning modesty. And it’s a common objection among Muslim feminists that it’s paternalistic for secular feminists to tell them how to dress.

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