The highly controversial “Charter of Values” proposed by the Parti Quebecois has cast a dark shadow on Canada’s image as a country distinguished by the rights and freedoms it guarantees its uniquely diverse population. If passed, the Charter would ban public sector employees in its Quebec province – including judges, police officers, teachers, university staff, doctors, and daycare staffers – from wearing “conspicuous religions symbols.” These would include head coverings of all kinds, turbans, skullcaps, and large religious jewellery.
Though Quebec’s government proposed law would only affect citizens of the province, it has resulted in heated debate throughout the country. The disunion between Ottawa’s federal government and the Quebec provincial government is not new, but this new proposal has ignited protests, fired up the opposition, and even embarrassed party supporters.
Spearheaded by Premier Pauline Marois, the Charter is presented as a law that would promote gender equality and religious neutrality. According to Bernard Drainville, the charter was prompted by “unreasonable” exemptions made by public institutions for religious groups and religiously motivated individuals: “These accommodations raised a lot of tension in the province. We feel it’s necessary that the state be respectful of every religion, of every moral and philosophical conviction, and the best way to respect everyone’s rights is to have a state that has no religion. Religious neutrality is a condition for equality for all.”
However, the reality of the plan is a far cry from this promise of “equality.” The proposed Charter has done nothing to unify Quebecers. Instead, it is a wildly divisive, legally tenuous fiasco that has prompted criticism of the Party as anti-democratic, unconstitutional, and xenophobic. Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council, has been outspoken about this intolerant law saying, “the government sees this as a law for unity, to unify Quebecers, and to ensure women’s equality, but it has done nothing but divide Quebec people since it was released.” So far, instances of violence and harassment against the wearers of religious symbols have become more prevalent.
Women’s groups are outraged at the proposal and rightly so. The Parti Quebecois is not promoting gender equality, despite the Party’s logic that the law will do this based on its largely ignorant belief that religious garments are a form of oppression. The only thing this law will do in that respect is force women out of the work force. President of the Quebec Women’s Federation Alexa Conradi noted that, “Doing away with religious symbols will only make valuable jobs for believing women disappear.”
Concerns about the possible consequences of the Charter stretch beyond gender. For many Quebecers, the plan evokes the possibility of a brain drain like the one following the 1995 sovereignty referendum. One Ontario hospital has chosen an interesting way to capitalise on the controversy by publishing advertisements targeted at luring health workers away from Quebec (see photo below). The Jerusalem Post similarly predicted a second mass exodus of Jews from the province because of Quebec’s increasingly anti-democratic banning of religious expression.
Ultimately, no one should have to choose between working for the state and their religious convictions. Not surprisingly, the plan has been opposed by every major federal party and has even been cited to be on a direct collision course with the Canadian Constitution. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom explicitly states that discrimination based on factors such as religion is prohibited in the workplace, notably in job offers, the hiring process, and working conditions.
The federal government has rightfully vowed to review the constitutionality of any such law in the event that it come into effect. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently asserted if a prospective law violates the constitutional protection to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled, the government will defend that right vigorously.
To anyone who gives this proposal any thought, the motivations behind the law are clear. Rather than guaranteeing the religious freedoms of its citizens, it will in fact result in discrimination based on faith. Wearers of “conspicuous religious symbols” are overwhelmingly Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs who will most likely leave their government jobs rather than adhere to the proposed Charter. The notion that it will unite citizens and ensure the neutrality of the state is unfounded. The promotion of secularism hardly seems to be advanced by the proposed superficial restrictions that can in no way guarantee neutrality of government employees. Separation of religion and politics is a valid cause but the “Charter of Values” seems designed to discriminate against minorities rather than promote equality.
All this proposed Charter has achieved so far has been to fragment Quebecois society, further relegate the province from the rest of Canada, and reinforce the intolerant and prejudicial reputation of the Parti Quebecois. As for Canada as a whole, it comes as a disgrace to the national identity it has constructed that it is facing such a severe crisis of values in one of its provinces.