Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Québec’s proposed Charter of Values

Often, written words cause a major stir. The latest one worth a look is the Parti Québecois’ proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

The Quebec government has made a cursory attempt at providing the document in English and in French, but key parts, such as the introduction and the Message from the Ministre responsable des Institutions démocratiques et de la Participation citoyenne (Minister responsible for democratic institutions and citizenship), Bernard Drainville, are available only in French.

The Charter is not a basic statement of the society’s values; it’s a response to the growing and vocal Muslim community in Quebec. It begins with
“Les orientations proposées par le gouvernement ont pour objectif de poursuivre la démarche de séparation des religions et de l’État...”
“The objective of the ideas proposed by the government is the pursuit of the separation of religion and the State...”

Only in section 4 does the document get to what the proposed values are, and those are relatively brief: equality of women and men; and shared historical inheritance. These are the “common values” that the government says that Quebec’s people share.

Not much, really. Vague. Incomplete.

The proposed charter

The Charter proposal begins with a statement of concern:
Since 2006, a number of high-profile religious accommodation cases have given rise to a profound discomfort in Quebec. To maintain social peace and promote harmony, we must prevent tensions from growing.
Clear rules on religious accommodations will contribute to integration and social cohesion. They will benefit all Quebecers, including newcomers. We will be best served by a state that treats everyone the same.
I agree. Hey, if the state is obliged to treat everyone the same, why can’t people put up signs in English as big as in French?

I have to ask: why this, now? Quebec has been a remarkably open, if not completely tolerant society for decades. Montreal itself is almost as ethnically diverse as Toronto, the most ethnically diverse city in the world. Jews, Sikhs, Mennonites (and other religions, although I don’t know all that prescribe what people wear) and Muslims have been able wear clothes according to their religious convictions, without any problem.

This is not the first recent indication of the discomfort that some people, at least, in Quebec feel toward the growing Muslim community. A few years ago, the town of Hérouxville tried to ban Shariah law, and in 2005, the Quebec Assembly voted unanimously against allowing Sharia law in civil cases.

And who can forget the Quebec government’s unfortunate guide for immigrants that advised against honour killing and cooking of smelly foods?

I think there are two forces at work:
First, the dominant French-Canadian, French-speaking, white and nominally Catholic culture in Quebec has faded, replaced not only by the secular French-speaking and arguably slightly multi-ethnic culture that the government insists exists, but a more diverse culture. The “Quebecois” identity envisioned by the separatists from the 60s through the 80s (let’s face it, separatism stopped being cool by 1970), the identity supposedly protected by Bill 101, has mostly faded, especially in Montreal.

The other force is the resurgence of religion in daily life, especially among Muslims. The younger generation of Muslims is more observant of the outward aspects of their religion, including clothing, than before. This coupled with their increasing numbers means that Quebecers, and all Canadians, see more women and girls in obvious religious garb.


Half of Quebec, including intellectuals, people of just about every religion represented in the province, and half of the separatists oppose the proposal.

What were they thinking?
That’s to be expected. What’s surprising is that the proponents of the Charter seemed totally umprepared for the backlash, as if they can’t understand why, for example, a Jewish prosecutor object if he would no longer be allowed to wear a yarmulke if he wanted to in court; or why a Sikh doctor should protest if he were disallowed from wearing a turban during hospital rounds or consultations in a CLSC clinic.

Whom are they hurting? Even the most strident believer in the PQ cannot believe that the fact that a woman wears a scarf on her head would cause someone else to change religions. “Oh, that is SUCH a nice scarf, I want one! I’ll even change religions so that I can wear it!”

No, the separatists cannot believe that.

I understand the other arguments: that Quebec is trying to protect its culture. But culture is a living thing, and that means it changes all the time. If its outward form is different from what political leaders remember from their childhood, they’ll just have to suck it up. Enforcing cultural norms has never worked and it isn’t going to start working now.

Is the charter fair?

To be frank, the proposed charter is discriminatory. It developed in response to a particular group, and affects religious minorities unfairly. If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, why shouldn’t a woman wear a scarf on her head? In a free society like Canada, she should have that right as an equal citizen. Yes, she should also be protected against abuse from anyone if she decides not to wear the scarf, too.

Just to be clear, I don't think that anyone should be allowed to wear clothing that puts themselves or anyone else in danger. That's why I don't think that girls should wear a hijab on the soccer pitch or while doing any other sport - because there is a danger of choking. Similarly, no one should be allowed onto a construction site without a hard-hat. I don't care what your religion says about that.

It's amazing that this piece of cloth can cause so much trouble.
And to be frank, I also think that the hijab in particular is also discriminatory. I’m not an expert on Islam, but from what I understand, the hijab itself is not a requirement of Islam. It’s something that some people choose to wear, and there are plenty of upstanding Muslim women in the world who choose not to wear it.

And let’s remember that some Muslim women feel pressured, or are absolutely pressured, to cover their heads. Not following the dictates of their culture and their families has caused the deaths of many Muslim women around the world, including in Canada. Don’t forget the murders of Geeti, Sahar and Zeinab Shafia’s and Rona Amir Mohammad, in the name of “honour.” No, it wasn’t because they didn’t wear hijabs, or not only because of that, but it is part of the same pattern of enforcing culture.

Isn’t that what the PQ is trying to do?

I think that people should be allowed to wear such a scarf. Hell, if I wanted to wear one, I don’t think that anyone should prevent me from doing so. Of course, I expect to be criticized, to be thought of as crazy or at least of having very poor taste.
Speaking of bad taste... maybe
Richard Simmons should put
something on his head.

I have to admit, I think a religious prescription on clothing is backward. But it you feel it’s a mark of respect, by all means, do it. And no democratic government should prevent you from doing it.

1 comment:

  1. Pauline Marois is one of the most mislead leaders Quebec has had. She's a bigot and a racist. I am French-Canadian and I oppose the propostition in its current format.

    However, there needs to be some kind of measure taken to protect our culture. Many European countries are dealing with an increasing number of problems due to the laxity of the immigration laws. Quebec is on the way to go down the same way.

    Now don't get me wrong, I do think that immigration is essential. But try to make sense of the following situation: a group of orthodox jew businessmen sued a gym that was across from their building, asking them to frost their windows because the women training were disrupting the work of their men. Well they won in court. How does that make sense? Why not frost your own windows? It's because of stupid things like this that Quebec is trying (in a very inefficient way, right now) to draw a line.

    I fear the current proposition will cause an exodus of great minds. The brilliant youths will go to other provinces, where they are more welcome, and that would be a great loss for Quebec.

    What most educated Quebecers would like is that the people immigrating to our country try to integrate themselves to our society rather than try to recreate the one they had in their home country. This is something their children usually easily achieve. What happens in their house is their business, of course. This problem, however, is directly linked to lack of proper services to help immigrants integrate the local culture and to racism, which prevents them to do so.

    We have a lot to gain for pluriculturalism, and yes, culture and identity are never set in stone, but there is a minimum that we ought to stand up for.

    And this is the most patriotic you'll ever see me!