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January 29, 2014

Values charter's moral implications not just limited to Quebec

Andrew Coyne

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It involves us all: Can we as a country live with this ethnocultural chauvinism? Will our consciences allow it?

Nariman Eldoraini wears a niqab during a Montreal gathering on Jan. 12 to oppose the proposed Quebec values charter. If implemented, the law would ban all public employees from wearing religious symbols and clothing. Photograph by Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press, Vancouver Sun

Discussion of the Parti Quebecois' "Charter of Quebec Values" has until now been conducted rather on the same lines as discussion of a third referendum: as a theoretical possibility, but not an immediate likelihood.

The thing was so outlandish, so crude, so ugly in its implications and so obvious in its motives - to this day we have yet to be given a shred of evidence of its necessity - that the consensus was that it was unlikely ever to be put into effect.

Quebecers would not stand for this, we told ourselves. It was a throwback to an earlier time, catering to old insecurities, unrepresentative of the Quebec of today. Oh, perhaps it might fly in a few rural backwaters, but never in cosmopolitan Montreal.

At any rate, the opposition parties would block it in the legislature. Some watered-down version might pass, an affirmation of the secular character of the Quebec state blah blah blah, but the core of it, the ban on religious garments in the public service - effectively, a ban on religious minorities in the public service - could not possibly become law.

Indeed, as more and more hospitals, school boards and municipalities spoke out against Bill 60 (as the legislation is called), as demonstrators marched against it and lawyers denounced it as unconstitutional, and as divisions began to emerge even among Péquistes as to its merits, it seemed increasingly evident the PQ's desperate gambit - for surely that is what it was - had backfired. Evident, that is, to everyone but the PQ leadership, whose response to this firestorm of opposition was ... to tighten the bill further.

Well, now, here we are months later, and every one of these wishful myths has been destroyed. The PQ, far from dwindling to a reactionary rump, can now see a majority government within reach: A Léger poll, taken several days after hearings on the bill had begun, put them ahead of the Liberals, 36 per cent to 33 per cent overall, but 43-25 among the francophone population, where elections are won or lost.

That wasn't a tribute to the leadership of Pauline Marois. Neither was there any great surge in support for sovereignty. Rather, it seems clearly to be based on popular support - enthusiasm would perhaps be more apt - for the charter.

While nearly half of all Quebecers - 48 per cent - support the bill, according to Léger, that's almost entirely due to the support it enjoys among francophones, at 57 per cent, compared with just 18 per cent support among the province's linguistic minorities. The ban on religious garb, in particular, attracts even more support: 60 per cent overall, 69 per cent among francophones - up 11 points since September. And while support is particularly strong outside the metropolitan areas, it is very nearly as strong in Montreal and Quebec City as well.

But you don't need to consult the polls to see how this is playing out. You need only look at how the political parties are reacting. Neither opposition party has come out four-square against the bill, or even the ban on religious clothing. The Coalition Avenir Québec would restrict its application to persons in positions of authority, such as police officers or judges (as suggested earlier by the Bouchard-Taylor commission on "reasonable accommodation"). Marvellous: so only the minority police officers and judges would be fired.

And the Liberals - ah, the Liberals. After dithering for months, while various figures within the party freelanced a range of positions on the issue, the party leader, Philippe Couillard, emerged with a stance of such infinite nuance that it ended up contradicting itself more than the bill. The party would allow public servants to wear the kippa and the hijab, but not the burka and the niqab. OK: the latter two cover the face, which suggests at least some sort of principled underpinning. But then why ban the chador, which does not?

Such exquisite parsing has earned the party the ridicule of all sides. With the opposition in disarray, there is growing talk of a spring election, with Bill 60 as its central issue. What once was a theoretical possibility has become a real, and disturbing, probability.

By this point, Quebecers can be under no illusion what the bill portends: the expulsion from the public service of thousands of observant Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and even the odd Christian (among the bill's other anomalies, crucifixes would be permitted, so long as they are not too large), unless they submit to stripping themselves of any outward manifestation of their faith. And the majority seem quite content with this.

Rationalize it all we like - a distinctly French approach to secularism, the legacy of Quebec's Catholic past etc. etc. - but if the polls hold the province is about to elect a separatist majority government, on an explicit appeal to ethnocultural chauvinism.

The moral implications of this are profound, and not limited to the province, or its government. They involve us all. Put simply: Is this a state of affairs we can live with in this country? Will our consciences allow it?

What, in particular, will be the reaction of the federal government? Will it defend the rights of local minorities, in the role originally envisaged for it, as it has pledged to do? Or will it do as federal governments have done since Wilfrid Laurier, faced with a determined local majority: shrug and abandon them to their fate?

News about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.

For more information on Canada's Jewish human rights activism on the issues, check out Independent Jewish Voices at (IPME is not an IJV project).

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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