Quebec’s plan to create a secular charter for the province has set off a passionate debate across Canada over faith and freedoms. The government of Premier Pauline Marois is expected to present its vision of how to bring religious neutrality to public-sector workplaces on Tuesday.
It will include tough measures to limit the use of religious symbols in the province, including in schools, hospitals and subsidized daycares. Ms. Marois and her ministers have indicated that they view religious signs as a violation of the principle of neutrality in the public service. Ms. Marois says she views the Muslim head scarf as a form of submission, incompatible with male-female equality, and a daycare worker wearing such a veil could influence children. She also indicated she wants Quebeckers to restrict religious symbols to their private lives. “If people want to wear signs on the street, that’s not my problem,” she told Radio-Canada. “But when you’re serving the state it will have to be clear: The state is neutral … the people who serve you don’t want to influence or embarrass you by openly and clearly expressing their convictions.”
Meanwhile, in the name of Quebec’s Catholic heritage, the government will maintain the crucifix that hangs over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly.
Polls show the government’s initiative is popular in the province. But the move has also brought stinging denunciations, giving a glimpse into fierce discussions over the charter that are still to come.
For Montreal city council member Lionel Perez, the debate over Quebec’s charter of values is both political and intensely personal.
As Mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where nearly one in two residents is an immigrant, Mr. Perez finds himself defending the kind of easy and open-minded co-existence that has long defined his native city. But Mr. Perez’s interest goes deeper. He is an observant Jew who wears a skullcap, or kippa, turning him into a high-profile symbol of Quebec’s attempt to define the limits of religious expression in public life.
“I’m obviously a poster child for this issue,” Mr. Perez says. “But I’m also living proof that it’s not really an issue. Because I’ve been able to defend citizens’ interests and represent the city, and it (my kippa) hasn’t inconvenienced or disturbed anybody.”
Mr. Perez spearheaded a motion in Montreal city council last month that calls for “inclusive secularism” in Quebec – a tacit rebuff to the Parti Québécois. Mr. Perez has also had to speak up for practices of religious accommodation in his district – such as women-only hours at a city pool and relaxed parking rules on Jewish holidays – that have drawn criticism from PQ minister Bernard Drainville, who is responsible for the Charter of Quebec Values.
But it’s Mr. Perez’s visible piety, through his head covering, that has made him a living embodiment of the explosive debate over expressions of faith in the public sphere. Mr. Perez, 42, has worn a kippa as a student, practising lawyer, businessman and, since 2009, a member of city council. In his public duties, he has served a multitude of different citizens and visited places of worships such as mosques and Sikh temples. When he sits in Montreal’s city council chambers, it is beneath a crucifix on the wall; like Quebec’s National Assembly, the province’s largest city also displays a prominent cross above its elected decision makers.
“I can be viewed as living proof that (wearing a kippa) is not an issue regarding neutrality,” he says. Banning headgear in the public service “will only exclude individuals and marginalize new immigrants,” he adds. “This doesn’t fit into Quebec values of openness and tolerance.”
Dalila Awada considers herself Québécoise. She loves the comedy of Louis-José Houde and the rock tunes of Les Cowboys Fringants. She marched side-by-side with her classmates last year in massive student protests that took over the streets of Montreal.
Yet she says she suddenly feels marginalized in the province in which she was born, and where her parents from Lebanon settled decades ago. Ms. Awada wears a Muslim head scarf. It is that distinction that she fears will separate her from her ambition to become a teacher or Quebec public servant.