Quebeckers rejected a number of things when they voted the Parti Québécois out of office. They rejected Premier Pauline Marois, who not only lost her government but also her seat. They said no thanks to another referendum on independence, and to a government that treats the province’s struggling economy as an afterthought. But what, exactly, did they say about the Charter of Values? Incoming premier Philippe Couillard announced last week that his government will table a new, watered-down version of the contentious charter, which died on the order paper. He apparently believes there is an unsatisfied desire among Quebeckers for legislation that regulates the reasonable accommodation of religious values in a secular society – even if the PQ lived and then died carrying exactly the same banner. Despite what some polls say, we think this is profoundly wrong. Mr. Couillard would be much wiser to take a firm stand and not revive needless and poisonous legislation.
Here’s the thing about the Charter of Values: It was the perverted solution to a problem that never existed. Mr. Couillard knows as well as anyone that the bill was created by the PQ to sow fear and division in Quebec, both of which serve the darker side of the separatist cause. To his credit, he kept saying as much before and during the election campaign. And his popularity grew as a result.
There were simply no crises that precipitated a call for a law banning conspicuous religious symbols from the offices and bodies of public servants. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission had spent a year examining the question of reasonable accommodation and concluded it was not a preoccupation for the majority of Quebeckers. If anything, the commission said, Quebec should do more to accommodate religious minorities, though it suggested that judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and the president and vice-president of the National Assembly be prohibited from wearing religious symbols.
How that was twisted into the Charter of Values, with its draconian call to eliminate religious garb from tens of thousands of public-service jobs, even if that meant eliminating the employee in the process, is a mystery that will forever be confined to the consciences of the PQ’s now-redundant election strategists. Mr. Couillard should leave it there. If he truly feels that the combined force of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Bill of Human Rights and Freedoms, the courts and the ongoing maturation of modern Quebec society are not enough to manage the reasonable accommodation of minority religious rights in Quebec, then perhaps his government can make itself feel better (and keep the PQ quiet) by adopting an anodyne motion restating that Quebec’s government is secular and that men and woman are equals. But the smarter play is to just wait. After six months go by, and then another six, and then a few years, and Quebeckers realize the supposedly imminent threats that the Charter of Values was purported to be a bulwark against never existed in the first place, they will lose interest in the subject and develop even more of a distaste for politicians who play the identity card.