This week, the Parti Québécois government launches its hearings on the Charter of Quebec values known as Bill 60. The Charter will modify the Quebec Charter of human rights and freedoms to in effect legislate Muslim, Jewish and Sikh employees to either remove their religious signs at work or be expelled from Quebec State jobs, including the public administration, the courts, municipalities, hospitals, social services, daycares, schools, universities, etc.
More than 250 briefs have been submitted to this Parliamentary Consultation and with an hour allotted to each brief, close to two months will be devoted to the hearings. Opinions on all sides of the debate will be heard from individuals, associations and private/public institutions, thus keeping the identity politic pot boiling in the provincial media.
What problem is the Charter designed to solve? Of the very few Anglophones and cultural communities employed in Quebec state institutions, the minority PQ government refuses to reveal: how many of its public servants are Muslim; how many are female Muslims wearing the hijab or niqab; how many public servants are Jews wearing the kippa, or Sikhs wearing the turban.
Despite searching far and wide over the last six months, the government has failed to find a single Québécois francophone citizen who complained for having been served by public servants wearing a Muslim hijab, the Jewish kippa or Sikh turban, let alone being served in a religiously biased way.
By nurturing fear of religious minorities through the debate on the Charter, The PQ is keeping the identity politics theme alive for the next provincial election. The goal is to gain key electoral seats in Québécois francophone majority ridings where the other nationalist party, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), is ahead by only 1,500 to 2,000 votes against the Parti Québécois. Gaining extra Québécois francophone ridings in the regions will allow the PQ to shift from a minority to a majority government in the upcoming 2014 election.
This will allow a PQ majority government to adopt the reinforced pro-French Bill 101 known as Bill 14 and the Bill 60 Charter of Quebec values. This identity politic agenda will also allow the PQ to set the stage for the next separatist referendum.
A Leger marketing poll conducted on September 15, 2013, and published in the Journal de Montréal, showed that close to 50 per cent of Québécois Francophones (80 per cent of Quebec's population) were in favour of the Charter, while 70 per cent of Quebec Anglophones (8 per cent of Quebec's population) and 65 per cent of Quebec Allophones (12 per cent of Quebec's population) were against the Charter.
The PQ is more interested in gaining Québécois Francophone ethnic nationalist votes than fostering social cohesion between Francophone factions, Anglophones and cultural/religious communities. The debate on the Charter of secular values has already polarised intergroup relations in Quebec. The damage is done and vulnerable minorities such as Muslims, Jews and Sikhs suffer accrued stigmatisation and segregation.
With state sanctioned stigmatisation of religious minorities through the Charter, there is a growing acceptance that it is okay for majority members to express negative attitudes and behaviors towards minorities who wear religious signs in public settings. As noted by Valérie Létourneau of the Regroupement des centres de femmes du Québec in La Presse: "There is a dramatic increase in cases of insults and violence against veiled Muslim women. For us, this is clearly linked to the debate on the Charter."
On radio in October and reported in La Presse, former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau stated: "Recent immigrants, who by the way speak excellent French, are starting to be afraid. Here they had peace. Now we step in with our big boots. And we don't target Muslim men but Muslim women. .. To adopt such a law targeting a certain number of Muslim women is embarrassing".
As vulnerable scapegoats, Muslims, Jews & Sikhs are acceptable collateral damage for achieving the Parti Québécois quest for majority government in 2014. While Parti Québécois strategists hope this identity politic plan will succeed, many others in Quebec hope it will fail at the ballot box.
Richard Bourhis is a professor in the department of psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal