Bernard Drainville is not backing down on his plans for a Quebec Charter of Values in the face of heated criticism in Quebec and across Canada.
Taking questions from The Globe and Mail one day after releasing the broad guidelines of the plan, the Parti Québécois minister in charge of the file defended his government against charges of intolerance and discrimination.
The minority PQ government's proposal includes a prohibition against conspicuous religious symbols in the civil service, and guidelines to decide on future demands for religious accommodations.
The starting point to your news conference on Tuesday was that there is a crisis in Quebec, but not everyone agrees. Is there really a crisis at this point?
There is a problem. There was a crisis over reasonable accommodations in 2007, that's clear, and it was that crisis that led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Unfortunately, almost nothing came out of Bouchard-Taylor. That crisis was not followed by any solutions. Since then, there have been other cases of clearly unreasonable religious accommodations that created tensions in Quebec, and that still create much tensions, much frustration.
Let's take what happened this summer at La Ronde [amusement park in Montreal]. Visitors couldn't bring food from outside, but some members of religious groups said they needed to bring their own meals and were granted an exemption. Is that the type of tensions you are referring to?
In your view, then, the private sector must adopt the guidelines that you are proposing to deal with these matters in the future?
What happened at La Ronde was in fact a request for an accommodation. In the future, the guidelines that we are putting in place will allow for an evaluation of all requests for religious accommodations. It will be up to businesses, departments, agencies, organizations to apply them and to decide whether the requested accommodation is reasonable or not. There are no guidelines in place at this point in time.
Will it be mandatory for businesses to apply them?
These are only guidelines, but by putting them in the Charter, we are sending a clear signal to society. What we are saying is, "Here is a framework by which people can govern themselves."
Another issue of potential tensions that you mentioned are the parents who apparently do not want to place their children in a daycare under the supervision of veiled women. In your view, that is an issue in Quebec, there are people who don't like that situation?
There are many parents who raise that issue. They are placing their children in the care of a public institution and they feel uncomfortable, even offended, that the people who are looking after their children are exposing their religious convictions. These parents don't want their children to be exposed to any form of religious expression and they feel that that is a choice that belongs only to them, and that it is not up to their school or their daycare to do that.
But many people are saying that it will be mainly Muslim women who will pay a price for the adoption of those measures.
The choice that we are making is not against anyone. It's a choice for all of Quebec society, for everyone, for all Quebeckers. It's the choice of religious neutrality. We have to come back to basics, and the question is whether we want a religiously neutral state, in the same way that it is politically neutral. Bureaucrats cannot reveal their political leanings during work hours, and the same thing applies to religious neutrality. It applies to all religions, and not to one religion in particular. Working for the state is not a right, it is a choice that comes with certain responsibilities.
The images of what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of religious symbols, which you released on Tuesday, elicited strong reactions. Some people said they are horrible symbols that remind them of other pictograms of what is allowed and not allowed in other societies.
Ah come on. The question of conspicuous religious symbols has been debated in other Western democratic societies. France, Switzerland, Belgium have developed policies in this matter, there are two American states – Nebraska and Pennsylvania – that don't allow teachers to wear religious symbols in public schools. It's not as if the democratic debate that we want in Quebec is not happening elsewhere. Quebeckers have the right to decide the type of religious neutrality that they want. I mean, can we have a respectful discussion without constantly having these rhetorical hyperboles?
Okay. Regarding the reaction in Quebec…
Look, Quebec is a society that has welcomed successive waves of immigrants throughout its history. The first Parliament in the British Empire to allow civic rights to Jews was in Lower Canada under Louis-Joseph Papineau, no one is disputing that.
But what some people feel is that after all of these forward moves, what is happening constitutes a backward step.
No, this is not a step backward. The best way to guarantee religious freedom is for the state to have no religion, to respect all citizens whether or not they have religious convictions, to respect all religions equally.
But there are even members of the secular movement in Quebec who feel that if you are going in that direction, you actually need to go further. There seems to be a contradiction between what is allowed and what is not allowed, especially since you allow the crucifix to remain in the National Assembly. There is a sense that you are protecting Catholic symbols.
First off, all religious symbols are affected by the measures that we are proposing. Secondly, I would like to point out that in the 1960s, many members of religious groups abandoned their symbols to remain in the public education sector. We have to consider the historical trajectory of Quebec, which culminated with a Constitutional amendment in 1998 to transform the province's religious school boards into linguistic school boards. What we are saying is that what was good for Catholics in the 1960s is good for all religions today. What's the problem? And regarding the crucifix, I have the conviction that for a majority of Quebeckers, when they look at it, they don't see a religious symbol, they see a symbol of the past, of our history, and we have decided to respect that.
Last question, the Harper government is raising questions about the validity of your proposal and is willing to go to court if it is adopted.
We have the conviction that our proposal is constitutional. But right now, it is up to the citizens of Quebec to make themselves heard. We will have a bill that we will want to see adopted, for which we will need the help of other MNAs from other parties. We hope that Quebeckers will support us in making it happen. Regarding what will happen after it is adopted, everyone will act accordingly. Regarding the courts, this is a hypothetical matter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.