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Antonia Maioni

Sunday, in her first public address on the charter of Quebec values since the rumours of its content were circulated last week, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois lauded its potential as a unifying element for Quebeckers, and alluded to the precedent of Bill 101. Passed thirty-six years ago Monday – Aug. 26, 1977 – the Charter of the French Language can arguably be seen as enjoying a wide consensus among francophone Quebeckers, and can be credited with shoring up the vitality of the French language throughout Quebec. Then, as now, one of the triggers was a growing concern about integrating immigrants into Quebec society. And much of the forceful reaction of "federalist" opponents to Bill 101 back then alluded to the same types of arguments that have surfaced against the charter of Quebec values today.

But it's an imperfect parallel, to say the least. For many, religion remains a deeper marker than language, profoundly related to identity and cultural history. It is at once an intensely personal and intrinsically social feature of their lives. And, unlike the target of language laws on commercial signage, for example, the religious symbols at play here are personal as well as public. While we can debate the difference between wearing a hijab or a tiny gold cross on a chain, there is no denying that one is much more of a public statement than the other.

And language laws were as much about economic rights as they were about culture and communication, targeted at making French the language of the workplace and public administration. On this basis, it is easy to see how Bill 101 ended up achieving consensus among francophones, since its application ensured an economic raison d'être for the French language in Quebec. While we have to remember the larger political context of the time – the election of a left-wing sovereigntist government and the spectre of the first referendum – it's important to note that it was the economic ramifications of language laws that had the most immediate impact on English-speaking communities in Quebec, and the so-called flight down Highway 401. The flip side of that is the way in which Bill 101 convinced a new generation of Quebeckers to become bilingual, primarily for economic reasons, and why the continued tension underlining the so-called language wars is often still characterized by financial rather than cultural reasons.

Another substantive difference is that Quebec now functions in the context of a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (to say nothing of Quebec's own charter, which predates Bill 101) and in a larger Canadian society whose diversity and breadth is much more complex than it was a generation ago. Just as Bill 101 opened up a Pandora's box of legal challenges over the application of the language charter, so too should Quebeckers be wary of another decades-long court-room drama over the values charter. Not only are these battles exhausting and time-consuming, they also risk further dividing communities and groups, increasing tension over a modus vivendi that is emerging of its own accord.

And this is the crux of the matter at hand: does Quebec need a charter of values? Is this really a crisis? Bill 101 was the culmination of more than a decade of language laws aimed at addressing a real and divisive political debate over the future of the French language. It was a hot-button issue that had electoral saliency and economic import, and grappled with the fundamental challenge of how to preserve the vitality of a language community in North America.

What the PQ government is searching for today goes beyond this, to create a secular and egalitarian society that will firmly break with the "French-Canadian" baggage of the past – or any other religious identity of the present. It is the image of a secular society that is now being hotly debated in France, where the process started over 200 years ago with the French Revolution. There, as here, the issue of "reasonable" accommodation is being subsumed in the question over the "ostentatious" display of religious symbols.

But even the authors of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which evoked the concept of a secular state in its 2008 report, would find an important difference between stripping religious symbols from public buildings and stripping individuals of their religious expression.

In the end, we need to re-examine the purported goal of using a charter of Quebec values as a "unifying" instrument – Which Quebeckers? Unifying around what? – and on the imperfect precedent offered up by the charter of the French language.

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor at McGill University.