Quebec charter aims to put religion under wraps

Could wearing a cross become a crime in Canada? Or a firing offense? In late August, a Montreal newspaper leaked details of a proposed secularist charter for the Canadian province of Quebec. Officially unveiled Sept. 10, the Charter of Quebec Values claims an “obligation to remain independent of religious authority.”

Proposed by the Parti Québécois, which is the province’s governing party, it would ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public places. Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms would then be amended to limit claims for accommodation of religious beliefs and practices.

Included is a ban on public sector employees — civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, judges, police, day care staff, municipal and university staff — wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or any other “ostentatious” religious symbols at work.

Elected members of the Quebec legislature would be exempt from the regulations. Also, crucifixes that are of mere historic significance could remain, even in political venues. The multitude of locations named for religious significance would not be changed under the proposed charter.

Possible motives

But Quebec’s secularist lawmakers nonetheless are serious about driving religion out of the public square and mind. The Parti Québécois’ federal counterpart, the Bloc Québécois of Canada’s Parliament, has expelled its only female and ethnic member for dissent, leaving only four seated members.

Maria Mourani, a Catholic of Lebanese origin who now sits as an Independent, wears a crucifix.

“Firing women from day care centers because they’re wearing a cross or a scarf, or a man from a hospital because he’s wearing a kippa or a turban — I can’t adhere to such a policy,” Mourani told reporters Sept. 13. Yet Lucie Martineau, president of a large Quebec civil service union, supports the charter.

“We’re obliged to keep our political opinions to ourselves,” she said. “We want that extended to our religious opinions.” And former Supreme Court of Canada judge Claire L’Heureux-Dubé also supports the ban, claiming that she sees more veiled women in Quebec than in Muslim countries.

Polls show that most Canadians don’t object to civil servants wearing religious gear, but they strongly oppose the niqab, the Islamic veil over the face.

In a Sept. 11 piece, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay wrote, “Face-covering is what this is really about. Turbans, crosses and Stars of David are all just collateral damage stuck in for the sake of ostensible religious neutrality. It simply wouldn’t do for [Quebec Premier and Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois] to single out one religious faith for censure. So she created a policy that goes after everyone.”

Others, however, believe there is more to the Parti Québécois strategy than that. The Quebec separatist party thrives on conflict with the federal government, McGill University historian John Zucchi said. “The ideologues want Quebec to be distinguished from Canada,” he told the Canadian Catholic News. Part of that, he added, is asserting there’s “a Quebec way of thinking which no one ever defines carefully.”

An instant conflict will, of course, be created if the Supreme Court strikes down the Quebec charter as unworkable, which most observers expect. If the top court overrules a provincial charter, it provides a ready-made grievance that the party, which advocates the separation of Quebec from Canada, can market to its loyal constituents.

Church’s response

The Catholic Church has responded cautiously, aware of the risk of triggering counterproductive hostility from secularists. Church authorities have pointed out, however, that the proposed charter would enable social injustices.

For example, Muslim men would have no problem fulfilling its requirements because they would be permitted beards; but Muslim women might be forced out of the work force if head scarves are forbidden, contributing to their isolation and victimization.

Also, there is a transparency issue: As Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine put it, if nuns who run a kindergarten funded by the government are not permitted to wear habits, “Why not? That’s who they are. They’re nuns. Why hide the fact they are nuns?”

Secularism’s ascendancy

If the Parti Québécois’ stances sound like the politics of desperation, there is an explanation: From the 1960s onward, Quebec declined from a fervently Catholic jurisdiction, whose high birth rate inevitably sustained French language and culture rights, to one of the lowest-ranking for faith or birth rate in the Western world.

Politics in Quebec are now dominated by secularists who, in the absence of children to pass the heritage on to, seek to enforce it by legislation. The resulting harsh measures have spurred an exodus of professionals and entrepreneurs, and the Quebec birth rate remains low despite generous government subsidies.

Rightly or wrongly, Quebec has also been seen as less welcoming to minority groups than other provinces of Canada. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described the Parti Québécois’ “distinct society” concept as “frankly racist.”

The official reaction by the Canadian government, currently in the hands of the Conservative Party, has been strong. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney provided a profile picture on Twitter that shows him wearing a forbidden Sikh head scarf, although Kenney is known to be a devout Roman Catholic.

Kenney promised that the government of Canada would challenge Quebec in court if the charter ended up violating the rights of Canadians. And one cannot currently become a Canadian citizen without unveiling one’s face.

But opposition to the proposed charter crosses party and ideology lines. The NDP (socialist) Opposition party leader Thomas Mulcair, his party’s only member from Quebec, said that, from his experience in Quebec’s justice department, the proposal is “patently illegal,” and he has threatened that the party will fund legal challenges.

Leader of the minority Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, has denounced the proposed charter as well.

Diversion tactic?

Even as politicians decried the charter, Zucchi wondered whether it is a diversion from the real economic and political issues created by the radical secularist trend, including the Quebec government’s current euthanasia bill. He has suggested that the tactic might be to “get people riled up over the charter but quietly go ahead with euthanasia.”

Charles Taylor, a Montreal-based Catholic philosopher who toured the province in 2007 and co-authored a report asking the Quebec government to define what it means by “secular,” said that the values proclaimed by the new charter “aren’t really Quebec values,” as the government insists. “Quebec values, as it turns out, are very much in line with the universal values about this, which include things like no discrimination,” Taylor told CBC News.

Denyse O’Leary writes from Canada.