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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Charter a fake solution to Quebec’s non-problem Add to ...

Good for the three federal political parties. Unanimously, the Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals have lined up against the provisions in the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

These policies would ban government employees, with some exceptions, from wearing religious symbols, ostensibly in the name of non-discrimination and secularism. But the issue runs much deeper, to one of human dignity and tolerance of difference. On both tests, the Quebec initiative fails, as all federal parties now acknowledge, along with the Quebec Liberal Party and the left-wing Québec Solidaire.

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Those who might otherwise be supportive of the Parti Québécois agree, including the Quebec teachers’ union, some public-sector unionists and such intellectuals as Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, who presided over a commission into diversity and accommodation in the province.

If we know anything about the Parti Québécois, it will use this values charter to rally hard-core nationalists and those who fear the dilution of Quebec’s French identity in a useless and divisive fight. And the PQ will use this unanimous federal party alignment – plus the expressed opposition from the premiers of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario – to try to create an “us-versus-them,” Quebec-against-the-rest-of-Canada psychodrama.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was first off the mark among federal politicians denouncing the values charter, although only calculated leaks and trial balloons were floating in the public domain. He nonetheless smelled a rat and, to his credit, opposed the idea.

On Tuesday, when the proposed charter was finally unveiled, the Conservatives and NDP joined Mr. Trudeau. The NDP had been rather silent until leader Thomas Mulcair condemned the charter idea.

His entry into the ranks of the opponents is significant, since the NDP has the largest number of federal seats in Quebec. With many nationalist-leaning MPs in the province, the NDP can hardly be called a party of “les autres.” Mr. Mulcair represents a Quebec constituency, as does Mr. Trudeau.

The whole values charter business is immensely sad and regrettably revealing. It disheartens those who try to defend Quebec against knee-jerk critics in the rest of Canada.

The idea of tolerance must include the respect for difference, which cannot be consistent with a state-sponsored attempt to obliterate any public evidence of religious belief by public employees.

As long as someone wearing a piece of religious identity isn’t harming anyone else or preventing the state from doing its business (as in checking for facial identification for driver’s licences or voting), what’s the damage?

What would happen, to take one example, if a Sikh or Jew or Muslim were elected to the Quebec National Assembly and chose as a matter of personal belief to wear a piece of religious attire? Will the people’s choice in the election have to be stripped of her or his religious identity or public apparel to pass some state-mandated test? What’s the sergeant-at-arms going to do? Prevent entry?

Quebec was once chided, even ridiculed, for its so-called “language police,” although the defence of the French language was central to its identity. Is the province now going to have a clothing-and-symbols police squad the way religious police in Iran check to see if any hair is showing beneath women’s head attire?

These are the kind of policies that make Quebec look intolerant and slightly crazy in pursuit of some notional idea of the Quebec identity. After all, the number of non-francophone employees of the province is tiny. From a practical point of view, this charter and the laws that might flow from it represent a fake solution to a non-problem.

According to public-opinion polls, support for the idea of the charter is strongest in rural and small-town Quebec, where almost no one wears these symbols. These are areas, however, where the PQ believes francophone voters will rally to the cause of protecting a secular state against religious intruders (to wit, those who are different), just as previous generations of francophone voters could be rallied defensively around the slogan “la langue et la foi.”

Five federal and provincial parties now oppose this charter. Another, Coalition Avenir Québec, sits on the fence. We count on the good judgment and big hearts of Quebeckers to reject this bad, divisive idea.

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