Quebec’s Charter of Values has come under fire from a range of Canadian political figures and Montreal protestors. In the name of secularism it bans public employees from wearing conspicuous religious clothing (hijabs and other head scarves, kippas, dastars, etc.), but makes exceptions for certain items, most notably small crosses. In this week’s debate, Jonas Becker calls out the charter for its hypocrisy, while Charles Lamy argues that it has a higher purpose. As always, the views expressed here are solely those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper editorial staff.

Anti-Charter: Jonas Becker

Quebec is no stranger to divisive politics, having borne witness to the Parti Quebecois-led fight for sovereignty in the 1970-80s with the FLQ crisis and the subsequent narrowly defeated Quebec referendum in 1980. This time, however, the province’s controversial politics have garnered a new kind of external attention.

Portraying itself as a defender against the encroaching tides of religious fundamentalism, Quebec has announced a broad plan to visually secularize its schools and public facilities. Under the Charter of Quebec Values, employees and servants of the province will be forbidden from wearing or displaying all overt religious symbols and clothing, including turbans, niqabs, and large crosses.

The Charter has been proposed by the Parti Quebecois Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville and has received support from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. In order for the Charter to pass, Marois will have to seek support from the opposition and other minority parties, something that is looking increasingly unlikely as the Charter attracts a storm of media and public furor throughout Canada.

The Charter has already succeeded in drawing hostility from Canada’s other major political parties; NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has attacked the bargaining of human rights and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has drawn attention to Marois’ playing with identity politics. 

The obvious flaw in the Charter is the hypocrisy involved in its conception. The Charter targets obvious religious symbols and paraphernalia, but makes an exception for religious symbols deemed important for Quebec’s culture and history; Catholic crosses present in schools and courts would stay. The question of what would happen to the bibles present in courts of law prompted a swift backtrack from Drainville in a recent press conference, with the Minister mumbling, “Oh my god, we’ll get back to you.”

The Charter not only displays elements of favouritism and discrimination amongst religions, but also a lack of foresight and basic completion in its overall structure. Furthermore, the option included inside the Charter for certain institutions and municipalities to opt-out of the charter allows for further problems with partiality in exactly who is affected by the Charter’s ant-religious bent: a university with a board of directors may choose to opt-out for their employees, but those in a public school may not. 

The Charter directly conflicts with Sections 15 (1) and (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15 (1) clearly states that no individual can be discriminated under the law based on their religion -- something that conflicts with the zealously secular nature of the Quebec Charter.

Although the Quebec government has stated that it will attempt to insert the secular Charter in Quebec’s version of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to bypass the Federal Charter, the Federal Conservative government has vowed to oppose it.

Unsurprisingly, the Charter has its greatest support in the more conservative and rural areas of Quebec -- which have not had much exposure to religions other than traditional Catholicism -- while the more cosmopolitan and diverse Montreal has warned that its city council will oppose the Charter. The Charter is a by-product not only of Quebec policy’s long standing adherence to tradition and antipathy to foreigners, but also of the deep divides of opinion and animosity present among its own populace. 

Finally, the Charter seems to be nothing more than the start of a new drive by the Parti Quebecois for Quebec sovereignty. By setting themselves up as defenders of tradition and secularism for the traditional francophone population, they can then make a case for Quebec’s differences from Canada and provide grounds for its separation.

As Canada faces a lingering economic recession and possible involvement in foreign conflicts, now more than ever is the time to be united. For impartiality, legal, and moral reasons, it is certainly not the time to inflame old wounds and dead ideals that will only bring further division and xenophobia within the country.

Pro-Charter: Charles Lamy

The Charter’s proponents are acting out of the belief that multiculturalism may act in contradiction to legal and moral values, primarily gender equality. When we accordingly judge the Charter of Quebec Values we will understand its necessity.

The Charter of Quebec Values is an affront to multiculturalism, not to constitutionalism. Much confusion arises from the sharp contrast between the Charter’s explicit and implicit goals. It explicitly seeks to promote the religious neutrality of the state, but beneath secular pronouncements, it is an implicit rejection of multiculturalism.

While most Canadians support the policy of multiculturalism, we have nevertheless arrived at the dreaded constitutional crossroads: one constitutional principle has challenged another for supremacy. The public sector employees who are most likely to be affected by the Charter are Muslim women wearing the Hijab, Niqab, and Burqua. While the Charter bans other “ostentatious symbols” to remove the spectre of intolerance, the implicit purpose is clear. The right of Canadians to their multicultural heritage is protected under Section 27, but so too are the rights of gender equality under Section 15 (a). Further, Section 28 clearly reinforces the necessity of gender equality of Section 15 (a): “the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”

Are these religious symbols oppressive to women and a violation of gender equality? Consider that it in many cases it is worn at the directive of the male, while the male enjoys no dress restriction. Consider that 54 per cent of Canadians and 74 per cent of Quebecois want to ban the burqa, a dress that covers the woman head to toe and places a mesh over her eyes. Consider that France, Italy, Belgium, and parts of Spain have recently criminalized wearing the burqa in public. Consider that a great deal of Muslim scholars argue that this clothing is oppressive, with no foundation in the Qu’ran.

The Charter of Quebec Values has decided that it will prioritize the principle of women’s equality above multicultural tolerance. Their legal arguments are justified by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 28 states that gender equality is guaranteed “notwithstanding anything in this charter.” This implores that gender equality not be compromised or debased. Further, Section 15 (b) allows the rights defined in Section 15 (a), including religious liberty, to be restricted to achieve the “amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged

individuals or groups.” Muslim women wearing the Hijab, Niqab, and Burqa can be considered such a disadvantaged group. In accordance with the Oakes Test, Quebec can thus prove that the cost of inhibiting religious freedoms is a proportional response to the pervasive and severe gender inequality resulting from this particular religious liberty. The Charter of Quebec Values is indeed constitutional.

If the Charter can be considered constitutional, we must also judge its moral worth. Canada has enthusiastically embraced multiculturalism for 40 years; is Quebec merely an aberration of the bigoted or foolish kind?

When Pierre Trudeau introduced the multiculturalist policy to the House of Commons on October 8, 1971, he stated that the government would encourage “various cultures and ethnic groups…to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all.”

For the most part, increased tolerance of religious and ethnic backgrounds has become one of Canada’s most celebrated traditions. Most Western countries followed in Trudeau’s footsteps, notably Britain, France, and Germany. Yet following David Cameron’s speech denouncing “state multiculturalism,” Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy followed in declaring multiculturalism an unequivocal failure. Quebec has joined them, not in bigotry but in the pursuit of more important ideals. The rights of women is such an ideal, one integral to Canadian national integrity.

Quebec has been mocked and vilified as a bigoted enclave of Canada’s shameful lowest-common denominator. Perhaps worse, multiculturalism has not been treated as an issue worthy of serious debate, but rather as one defended by an ad hominem attack on its critics. I do not reject all aspects of multiculturalism, but I reject the notion that to discuss its merits is an admission of racism or a betrayal of Canadian ideals.

Women’s rights are integral to the Quebecois identity, and defending them is a personal battle of Quebec’s first female Premier. The Charter of Quebec Values is a constitutional and moral solution by Marois. It is a shame that with all Canada has done for women’s equality it must let Quebec fight alone.

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