Quebec's proposed charter of values, which among other things would bar provincial government employees from wearing turbans, hijabs, kippas and large visible crucifixes or other "ostentatious" religious symbols in the workplace, is now on the table. It is offered as a ray of hope that what the Parti Québécois characterizes as a long provincial nightmare will soon be over.
"The state has no place interfering in the moral and religious beliefs of Quebeckers," Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the charter, said in a bid to explain its stated rationale. That's a bit like saying that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation" when proposing legislation saying only virgins, or people who look like them to a boss, can mail you a new health card.
Mr. Drainville's voice remained remarkably steady for a man who, we're asked to believe, understood himself to be addressing the confused population of a province whose citizens have been soldiering on through what he called "a crisis."
The crisis, he clarified in a follow-up interview, stems from the "tensions" and "much frustration" caused by the "clearly unreasonable religious accommodations" that minorities in the province have been granted on occasion.
By "tensions," was he referring, for example, to a case this summer when a newspaper reported that Muslim and Jewish groups were allowed to bring their own food into the La Ronde amusement park – which offers no kosher or halal dining option? The outrage caused the park to forbid the practice.
"Yes," Mr. Drainville said. Clearly the Parti Québécois must be ever vigilant: Some historians theorize that a picnic brought down the Roman Empire.
If the charter is approved, the days when members of Quebec's 90-per-cent Christian population trying to renew a driver's licence have to encounter a man brutally wearing a turban asking for deux pièces d'identité, s'il vous plaît will be but a scary tale told to children at bedtime.
"Qu'est-ce qu'un turban," they'll ask, as the charter's proponents hope that the private sector will adopt the same dress code and want to amend Quebec's human-rights legislation to limit requests for religious accommodation, entrenching these changes.
After all, "working for the state is not a right; it is a choice that comes with certain responsibilities," Mr. Drainville explained. The majority of which seem to involve head-wear restraint, above all else.
Perhaps those curious youngsters will be told to ask their teacher to explain what a turban is, secure in the knowledge that they will be able to see her hair and therefore will not be too distracted by confusion as to whether the state is now Muslim to understand her answer. Not like now, when, I'm given to understand, the sight of a kippa on their pediatrician leads most children to conclude that they have been magically transported to Israel.
Sentiments against hijabs and turbans, and indeed the people who mostly sport them, aren't unique to Quebeckers. The PQ isn't the first party to poke a minority, with a wink to the majority, but this charter is steam-whistle, not dog-whistle politics. It's painfully loud, everyone can hear it and many in that province are covering their ears.
Last year, my mum lost her hair to chemotherapy. She found wearing a wig too uncomfortable to bear and so played around with a scarf for a while but was unhappy with the results.
"I was trying to achieve the graceful look I'd seen on Muslim women," she told me, "but instead I looked like Princess Anne at the races."
Eventually, she called the Islamic Society of Guelph and asked if someone could help her. "I'll give you my wife's cell number," the man she spoke to said. "She's awesome." The two women met at the rec centre it turned out that they both frequent and my mother was scarf-schooled. She is South African and I like to think that, should a woman of another background ever need to be coached on delivering withering glances to her husband when he tries to buy seven pounds of biltong, my mum will be there for her. She could give workshops.
I believe that we can all live in the same country as these two women. Because all those who say we must, for example, ban that rare bird, the burka, so that these things do not change our country should consider that the real change to Canada would be in the banning or limiting of something so innocuous yet vital to the lives of others. That would be the lasting damage.