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Editorials Quebec’s secular code cuts off the province from its roots of tolerance

The Quebec government website shows examples of acceptable and unacceptable religious symbols allowed to be worn by public servants, according to its proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

Horrible. Unthinkable. Frightening.

A government that posts sketches of impermissible religious dress in the public-sector workplace, as the Parti Québécois did on Tuesday, has cut itself off from its province's roots of tolerance and freedom of conscience, and Canada's. And once it has done so, how far will it go?

The human-like figures are eyeless and mouthless, an ironically accurate evocation of a world in which the government has decided it can expunge a certain type of individuality.

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This is a new moment for Canada. These are the first government-created images we are aware of that are akin to "no smoking" signs for religious expression. The potency of those images will reverberate far beyond the public-sector workplace. While the caption proclaims that the neutral Quebec state serves all, the real message is: "This is what you must not be." It is a Quebec for some.

The Parti Québécois is playing a deeply cynical game in trying to exploit the fears and anxiety of rural Quebec (where few immigrants live), as the now-defunct Action Démocratique du Québec did to boost its popularity, spectacularly – before an equally spectacular fall. And if the Supreme Court of Canada should ultimately strike down the new Charter of Values, the PQ could claim that a Canadian panel had snubbed Quebec's distinct society.

But those cynical politics put at risk the kind of positive, contented feeling in Quebec homes and society that is only partly captured by phrases like "social harmony." The government-authorized pictures say it: These people in religious clothing are not role models for Quebec children. That message is deeply hurtful and divisive. It has no place in Canada.

Let's not tiptoe around those pictorial do's and don'ts – they contain an echo of Saudi Arabia, in which posters instruct men and women on what they can and cannot wear. Except that in Saudi Arabia, religious codes must be adhered to; in Quebec, a secular code needs to be followed.

The notion that all religious symbols are the same is simply false. Those who observe minority religions in Quebec such as Orthodox Judaism, Sikhism and Islam believe the wearing of certain religious garb to be an obligation; by contrast, the Christian cross tends not to be worn as a consequence of an obligation. A ban is inherently unequal. In any event, small crosses would be permitted by the government.

This is not the Quebec, and the Canada, we know.

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