What was promised was bad enough; what has been delivered is worse. The Charter of Values, introduced in Quebec's National Assembly on Thursday, turns out to negate freedom of religion even more extensively than had been expected.
The pettiness of the Parti Québécois government's bill is most vividly illustrated by its chapter on daycare centres. This includes a prohibition on "a repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept, in particular with regard to dietary matters ... if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept." Are halal and kosher to be foods that dare not speak their names?
If enacted, the Charter's rules against religious symbols and religious headgear will apply to all employees of government. And companies that enter into contracts with public-sector agencies can be required to comply with the Charter, too.
There had been some prospect that public-sector entities could opt out from the Charter of Values – there is a very broad consensus in favour of opting-out in Montreal – but all that the bill allows is a one-time transition period, of a maximum of five years with no possible renewal.
As for the "ostentatious" religious symbols depicted in illustrations distributed by the provincial government in September, no more precision has been provided as to the permitted size, for example, of a cross on a chain.
The PQ government's behaviour is hard to explain except by a narrow political motive – a hope of whipping up and energizing a core of partisans and winning a majority. The government is aiming to use this as a wedge issue, and a provocation. It has to know that the courts will almost certainly strike down the law as a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms – an outcome the separatist party may even be courting.
Five years ago, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission showed convincingly that the controversy in Quebec about "reasonable accommodation" had been blown enormously out of proportion. Deplorably, the PQ government is trying to revert to an earlier, distorted view. The long-standing Canadian – and Quebec – tradition of respect for religious freedom is one of this country's great strengths, not a defect that is somehow undermining society. The Charter of Values is a mean-spirited, wrong-headed solution to a non-existent problem.