The essence of my opinion on the divisive Charte des Valeurs. I wrote this editorial for a community newspaper at the request of one editor, but she was overruled by an editor higher up in the food chain who did not want to touch “this political hot potato.” From a commercial view I cannot really blame the second editor, as this charter cuts everything it touches in two, and I don’t know how much longer this paper or any other would survive if its readership was cut in two…
(Pour les francophones, je vous recommande de lire l’excellente analyse de la journaliste Isabelle Paré, parue dans Le Devoir cette semaine, La Charte de l’inconfort collectif .)
Here’s the editorial I wrote…
The proposed Quebec Charter of Values won’t solve anything, and here’s why.
Before spelling out why the proposed Charter will not solve anything, it’s best to clarify exactly what it’s intended to accomplish. That way, we avoid jumping to emotionally charged conclusions like certain rest-of-Canada Anglos who keep insisting the Parti Québécois wants to “ban English.” Six PQ governments later, we’re still here. So, yes to deep breaths and no to hyperbole…and no to the Charter of Values, at least in its current form.
The Charter of Values is a bill intended to ensure the “religious neutrality of the state” by forbidding government employees (including those in hospitals and schools) from wearing visible religious symbols, including the Muslim hijab, the Jewish kippa and the Sikh turban, while on the job. It would not ban the garments from the streets or the private sector, and people receiving government services would be permitted to wear any symbols, with the exception of the burqa (full-body veil). The Calgary Herald and the New York Times (!) erroneously reported that people receiving services could not wear religious symbols either. That’s not the case.
Fundamentalism is fundamentalism: Separation of church and state is not a bad goal. Few if any Quebecers want the province to return to theocracy. However, with this proposed charter, the secular Quebec government is imposing its own ideology unilaterally on Quebecers’ clothing choices. In the name of secularism, the government is doing exactly what it would not like religious authorities to do—interfering in citizens’ lives. Secular fundamentalism is still fundamentalism.
The state has no place in the wardrobes of the nation: As nations around the world decriminalized homosexuality over the course of the 20th century, gay rights activists argued that homosexuality was not a crime because it harmed no one; two men who became lovers and moved in with each other were not infringing on anyone else’s rights. The same could be said for the wearing of religious symbols. A Muslim public-school science teacher who wears a headscarf in a classroom, for example, is not preventing others from making their own choices. If she starts forbidding her students to eat pork at lunchtime, that would be a problem, but the state should trust its own certified teachers to show a minimum of professionalism, and school principals or department heads to discipline them within the school if they don’t. There’s no need to make a law to publicly stigmatize these people, and accuse them of the thoughtcrime of passive proselytizing, before any misdeeds have been committed.
We need to attract (not repel) skilled newcomers: The viral ad launched by the Lakeside Health Region in Oshawa, Ont.(pictured above) says it all. “We (in Ontario) don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it.” Proponents of the Charter argue that Muslims (for example) would rather keep their jobs than their hijabs, but that becomes less of an issue when, just down the 401, Ontario is waiting to hire them with open arms. The language barrier won’t hold back the most highly educated immigrants, because they’re almost all multilingual anyway. If Quebec can’t attract and keep qualified francophone immigrants (many of whom are Muslims from North Africa) and make them members of Québécois society, the population of the province will fall over time, there will be a shortage of highly skilled labour and cherished PQ projects like sovereignty and the protection of the French language will stall due to a lack of new blood in their ranks.
Quebecers will be divided into “us” and “them” more than ever: Premier Marois and Minister Drainville insist that the charter is not a racist or xenophobic document, and to be fair, on paper it isn’t. But declarations matter less than results. In making their own mistrust of minorities so public, the ministers are creating distinctions between groups of Quebecers and legitimizing xenophobic behaviour like the harassment of an Algerian-Québécois family at a shopping centre last month. This kind of behaviour won’t encourage newcomers to integrate; it will encourage them to retreat into closed communities where their chosen identities are more respected, and the present vicious circle of stereotypes, mistrust and lack of communication between communities will continue. Although Bernard Drainville insists the charter would “reduce social tensions,” it would likely have the opposite effect.
There is more than one type of Quebecer: In claiming to speak in the name of all Quebecers when promoting the charter, the PQ implies that members of religious minorities are not Quebecers. Nonsense. Muslims, Sikhs and particularly Jews have lived in Quebec for generations, sending their kids to French school, running for elected office, sometimes even supporting the sovereigntist cause. It’s insulting to make these people feel like they don’t belong, in the only society they’ve ever known. What’s more, in implying that “nous”, the people of Quebec, back the charter, the government is implying that the 40-45% of Quebec voters who don’t support the charter are not true Quebecers, whether they are immigrants, members of established religious minorities, or just liberal-minded French or English folk who don’t feel threatened by a hijab. That is disgusting—particularly from a minority government.
Sovereigntists have shot themselves in the foot: Every sovereigntist knows “anglophones and ethnics” swung the vote in the 1995 independence referendum. That alone should have been enough to scare sovereigntists into attracting—not repelling—minority votes. But no, 20 years on they have resorted to crude base-baiting, playing on the fear of outsiders to bring the troops—small-town, middle-aged white francophones—back into line. Base-baiting failed spectacularly for the Republicans in the 2012 US elections; that should be a lesson to Premier Marois. After the federal Bloc Québécois’ turfing of Lebanese-Québécoise MP Maria Mourani because of her disagreement with the charter, it’s difficult to see why any minority voter, or anyone who does not subscribe to a narrow, exclusive vision of sovereignty, would want to support the PQ or the BQ. In trying to attract one type of voter, the PQ is alienating many.
All this for nothing: The likelihood of the Charter actually becoming law is very low. The PQ has a minority government and needs the support of the opposition Liberals. Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, however, has said the Charter come into force “over his dead body”. Whenever the PQ gets voted out of office, it will be left holding a bill that was never enacted, but by its spectre left Quebecers more divided than ever. No one wants that legacy.
And two arguments that I added later on:
What makes a scarf a hijab?: To quote an excellent English Montreal blogger whose post I’ll reblog shortly as an annex to this one, “a kippa is only a beanie on the head of a non-Jew.” A bonnet is a religious symbol on the head of a practicing Rastafarian but only a fashion statement on the head of a casual reggae fan. Are we going to ask people about their religious beliefs in job interviews in order to distinguish believers from nonbelievers for the purpose of enforcing this dress code? What makes a headscarf a religious symbol? Muslim women are not the only women who may choose to wear headscarves. Take two women who wear headscarves indoors because they are undergoing chemo, are burn victims, have alopecia, or just think headscarves are pretty. Are you going to say that a Muslim woman who is a burn victim can’t wear a scarf to cover it up but an atheist can? Are you going to ban scarves and make people wear hats or walk around bald? A nice little muddle indeed.
Free speech and its discontents: Making someone remove their hijab, cross or turban does not make them any less Muslim, Christian or Sikh. I know several ordinarily open-minded people who are in favour of the charter because they have, in the past, been judged about their alcohol consumption or sexual behaviour by health professionals who are religious. I understand that these incidents are at best annoying and at worst traumatic (particularly for LGBT people). But where is the evidence that these particular measures at this level will stop people from saying what’s on their minds, inappropriate though it may be? Disciplining health professionals who cross the line at work is the prerogative of the employer after a client makes a complaint—a law won’t stop people from saying what they’re going to say, but professional sanctions might. And cutting back that alcohol consumption might be good for your health—and mine—anyway…