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Quebec’s ‘deep divisions’ were nonexistent – Until the Charter came along

After months of polling, dipping their toes into the waters of public opinion and occasional media leaks, the Parti Québécois unveiled its Charter of Values. With the details in front of us, it's worth asking why, exactly, the PQ is so convinced that Quebec actually needs it.

The Charter is both necessary and pressing, the PQ claims, to create unity in an ostensibly divided province, to "ensure children are not influenced by religious symbols" worn by public school and daycare workers, to secure all citizens' equality by ensuring a neutral public sector, and to preserve the gender equality central to Quebec's post-Quiet Revolution identity. Quite a grab-bag of arguments – but do any of them hold up?

Is Quebec really so divided over religious accommodation? A quick search of Le Devoir's archives shows that the words "accommodements raisonnables" have appeared in its pages twenty-four times in the last year. Twenty-three of those references have appeared since August 20, when the PQ started leaking details of the Charter. This points to the exact conclusion drawn by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodation: there is no deep division or crisis in Quebec's integration system. Crises arise when overzealous media (as in 2008) or opportunistic politicians (today) draw the issue into the public eye. Quebec's "deep divisions" appear to have lain largely dormant until mid-August, when the PQ's proclamations around the Charter created the public controversy.

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Are religious symbols such as turbans, headscarves or yarmulkes worn by school or daycare workers likely to influence children? Marois suggests that "a veiled educator... has authority over children and could incite them to practise her religion". And yet, if anything, it seems reasonable to assume that visibly religious teachers would much more carefully ensure that their private beliefs not enter into, and imperil, their professional lives. This is borne out by the fact that thousands of teachers in veils, yarmulkes and turbans appear perfectly capable of delivering religiously neutral instruction in every other province in Canada and beyond.

Will the Charter preserve citizens' equality by ensuring the province's neutrality? As Will Kymlicka, one of the world's foremost experts on multiculturalism and social integration points out, no state is entirely neutral. Every government inevitably makes decisions that favour given cultural and religious groups: statutory holidays around Christmas and Easter, for example, are clearly preferential toward Canadians of a Christian background. But while states can't be fully neutral, they can preserve citizens' equality not by treating everyone identically, but by accommodating those differences that would otherwise exclude some people from public life. This is why, for example, turbans were permitted into the RCMP in the 1990s: to ensure that Sikhs could participate in Canadian public life on an equal footing with other citizens. Likewise, allowing Quebec's public sector employees to wear religious symbols isn't preferential treatment, but rather ensures that they aren't excluded from public institutions that other citizens have access to. And if the concern is that religious symbols undermine the "visible" neutrality of the state, then so too do public institutions that break for Easter, but not for Eid or Rosh Hashanah.

Finally, the Charter claims to prioritize gender equality above religious freedom, in conformity with Quebec's post-Quiet Revolution values. While gender equality clearly is an important object of public policy debate, the Charter's approach is completely misguided. First, the liberal-democratic wall separating church and state aims precisely to protect religious groups – and minorities in particular – from the incursions of governments. Secondly, there are serious feminist concerns with the state's "emancipating" women – whether they like it or not – by eradicating their legal rights to choose whether or not to wear religious symbols. Finally, the Charter's application of gender equality is as selective as it is uneven: somehow, no one seems to be proposing laws obligating Catholics to ordain women as priests.

This all points to a clear conclusion: the Charter of Values stems from nothing more than Pauline Marois and the PQ's partisan politicking. The Charter reflects the PQ's persistent willingness to politicize religion, evident in its recent and ill-fated defence of the Quebec Soccer Federation's turban ban (why can't those kids just play in their own backyards?). This is further supported by Charter proponents' advocacy for preventing women with face-covering veils from receiving public services, suggesting a much deeper concern with specific religions than with maintaining the state's neutrality.

Quebeckers have very good historical and cultural reasons to reject multiculturalism: Trudeau's advocacy for the policy in the early 1970s undermined Quebec's status in the Canadian federation, and Quebeckers' linguistic and cultural identity remains threatened by pluralism in ways that simply don't apply in the rest of the country. But there's a lot of space between multiculturalism and the kind of aggressively integrationist laïcité that the PQ seems intent on adopting. It's worth noting that, beyond the extraordinary insensitivity and reductionism in Marois' suggestion that the London bombings showed the failure of British multiculturalism, it conveniently neglects the fact that France's laïcité did little to stem the riots, largely conducted by a deeply alienated and politically marginalized North African underclass, which swept through France in 2005.

This government has proven more than willing to shore up support by scapegoating the most visible forms of difference in a pluralistic society and by exploiting Quebeckers' entirely legitimate linguistic and cultural insecurities. And yet, the fact that the issue largely materialized through the government's own apocalyptic proclamations of crisis is encouraging: it shows that Quebeckers themselves have no share in this government's cynicism and parochialism. Let's hope that they reject the PQ's Charter, and its divisive politics, at the earliest possible occasion.

Dr. Inder Marwah is a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, specializing in religious rights, multiculturalism and social integration in Canada and Europe.

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