Comparing the Parti Québécois government’s looming Charter of Quebec Values to the province’s 36-year-old Charter of the French Language, as Premier Pauline Marois and her party have loudly been doing of late, is at best fraught and at worst odious. No one should be fooled by this tactic.
Mme. Marois has said that the values charter will be “a strong unifying element for Quebeckers, the way it was with Bill 101.” The PQ, meanwhile, has posted on its website a quiz that compares the headlines generated by the tabling and passage of Bill 101 in 1977 to reaction to the Charter of Values. Did a Washington newspaper call a proposed Quebec charter an “oppressive measure” in 1977 or 2013? When was it that a federalist politician claimed a proposed charter would create a “Quebec ghetto”?
It doesn’t matter. We get the implications: that the negative reception for the values charter is proof of its virtue; and that those who gainsay today will be proven wrong by history tomorrow.
This is ridiculous. The language charter, while contentious, addressed a specific, documented problem – the decline of the French language and the unfair predominance of English in business. As well, it applied equally across the entire population: The French majority were as restricted as the province’s minority populations in their language choices. Time and court challenges have smoothed out the language law’s rougher edges. Few people now argue that it needs to be repealed.
The values charter, on the other hand, is without justification. No one in government has credibly demonstrated the existence of a social ill involving provincial employees wearing conspicuous religious symbols. The new charter corrects nothing, and it unfairly targets a small minority of people of various faiths while leaving unperturbed the province’s mostly non-religious majority.
The only things Bill 101 and the proposed new law share are the word “charter” and the PQ’s vast capacity for fomenting cultural tension. And that is the most worrisome part of watching the leaders of the modern PQ ride the coattails of the Charter of the French Language: Unable to form a winning argument in favour of their movement, they are chipping away at the hard-won social cohesion their predecessors built, and waiting to see where it leads.