If the Quebec government has its way, it a new class of offenders will be introduced into society. They might be called values violators. The Nov. 7 tabling of the Charter of Quebec Values of Secularism (Bill 60) confirmed the potential list of violators includes doctors that wear kippas, nurses wearing a cross, daycare workers with hijabs and university professors with turbans.
The loss of employment is the ultimate punishment such offenders face if they don't remove their threatening symbols. The genius of the Parti Québécois government's proposed bill outlining Quebec's so-called values is that it puts the burden for enforcement on those institutions that harbour potential values violators. This is surely a relief to the province's law enforcement agents. But in the unlikely event this draconian bill ever becomes law, the potentially affected hospitals, universities, daycares and other potentially affected institutions would face a serious conundrum. Not implementing the law, they might assume, will result in cuts to their finances.
Quebec's Muslims, Jews and Sikhs are the most obvious targets for potential values violations. Many members of these communities are extremely concerned not only about the consequences of the proposed legislation but are also worried with good reason about the very unhealthy tone of the values rhetoric. As revealed in an October Leger Marketing poll, the most fervent supports of the values bill are favorable to an extension of the ban on religious symbols beyond public institutions.
When the PQ candidate in a forthcoming provincial by-election wrote that she liked the idea of removing the word 'Jewish' from the province's Jewish General Hospital, the minister responsible for democratic institutions and the architect of the Values Charter, Bernard Drainville offered a light reprimand. He defended the candidate's comments as "freedom of speech" and added that as a PQ candidate she would have to toe the party line which did not include such things.
Mr. Drainvile shouldn't be expecting any thanks from the Jewish community, as its already fragile relations with the PQ have reached an all-time low. Calling it "patently discriminatory" – and deeply insulting to its staff, the Jewish General Hospital indicated that it will never comply with Bill 60. In response, Mr. Drainville said he didn't understand its opposition, even though it couldn't be much clearer. The reality is he chooses not to understand it.
The opposition Liberals are accused by the government of being naive and overly preoccupied by individual rights – the government prefers that term to human rights. Against what the government describes as the "radical softness" of the provincial Liberals, the PQ vaunts the right of the collective by which they really mean the will of the majority to impose its so-called values on the minority. To justify its position, the government refers to the endorsement secured from former Supreme Court judge Claire L'Heureux Dubé, who signed a petition that favors the ban. Never one of the high Court's leading lights, Ms. Dubé feels little compulsion to publicly defend her views in legal or constitutional terms as it is easier for her to hide behind a petition.
Two former Parti Québécois premiers – Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau – have denounced the proposal. However, government spokespersons have insincerely described their input as welcome gave them much less weight than a group of local television celebrities led by a local Quebec game and reality TV show host Julie Snyder. Closely echoing the government's view, Ms. Snyder claims the law is urgently needed to defend against the "religious message" conveyed by potential values violators.
What is the message that we Quebecers are hearing so much about? What we can discern is that people that wear religious symbols convey the view that gender equality can be violated in the name of religion. Therefore such offenders cannot be impartial when making policy decisions or delivering a service to the public. Our government likens wearing a cross around your neck or a keepa on your head to sporting a t-shirt or pin with the name of a political party. No evidence is ever offered for the assertion that those wearing religious symbols are so obviously impartial. But the government regards such proof as unnecessary.
In rather Orwellian terms, Mr. Drainville continues to insist that the removal of employees of public institutions that violate values in public institutions will usher in a new era of harmony. Rather than harmony, there is a greater likelihood that some form of extremist secularism will evolve give rise to a McCarthyist stream amongst some Quebeckers who will gladly seek out and report values violators. It is a sad and most cynical way for a minority government to secure support from the majority.
Jack Jedwab is executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies