Whose Values? Quebec's New Charter | Print Version
by Adam Allouba*
Le Québécois Libre, September 15, 2013, No 314
Link: http://www.quebecoislibre.org/13/130915-12.html

While Quebec's last election campaign focused on the ongoing student dispute and the issue of corruption, halfway through the Parti Québécois' platform, there appeared a pledge to “develop a Quebec charter of secularity.” And earlier this week, the Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville, finally delivered the party's solution in search of a problem: the Québec Charter of Values. Fortunately, the Charter remains on the drawing board for now – fortunately, because much of what is proposed is appalling in the extreme. The document takes the form of five proposals:

1. Amend the province's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to enshrine the secular nature of the state and reinforce equality of the sexes.
2. Articulate a duty of religious neutrality for public employees.
3. Provide a framework for the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols.
4. Require that a person's face be uncovered when giving or receiving a public service.
5. Require all state institutions to adopt policies to ensure their religious neutrality and to handle religious accommodation.

Some of what is proposed is not unreasonable. It is important, after all, to ensure that people receiving public services are actually who they claim to be. And no sensible person wants the state to play favourites when it comes to religion. But the Charter as a whole, especially in light of some of the statements from the government, is deeply antithetical to individual freedoms.

What Does “Neutral” Mean, Anyway?

Religious neutrality, as conceived of in the Charter, has two aspects. First, public officials must execute their tasks independently of their religious beliefs. Second, they must abstain from proselytizing in the context of their functions. The first point is a given, although it's unclear how often religious bias among Quebec public employees has been a problem.

The second point appears reasonable – until one considers that the Quebec government believes that wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols constitutes “passive or silent” proselytizing. So, for example, a Sikh wears a turban at least in part so as to recruit converts, as does a Muslim woman in a headscarf. Most insidiously, as Bernard Drainville explained, religious symbols need to be expunged from subsidized daycares because children are “impressionable and vulnerable … we don't want children exposed to any religious influence whatsoever.” The mind boggles at the suggestion that young minds will be irredeemably warped by the sight of a hijab, and yet that fear seems to shape official policy in Quebec City.

The inanity of this argument – that the goal is to shield citizens from proselytizing – is laid bare by the inclusion of the skullcap in the list of prohibited symbols. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Jewish faith knows that it is anything but a religion of conversion. If you're tempted to join the club, you had better mean it, because becoming a Jew requires a significant investment of time and effort. And the more visibly Jewish a person is, the less likely it is that they adhere to a strain that is open to converts. The notion that anyone wears a kippah with the idea of enlarging the faith is ridiculous on its face.

Moreover, how exactly does wearing a religious symbol conflict with the state's duty to be religiously neutral? The Charter merely states that such symbols are “liable to raise a doubt” in that regard and compares religious symbols to political ones – as if a cross were equivalent to a campaign button. But the purpose of wearing the most conspicuous religious symbols – the turban, the hijab – is generally to comply with one's most deeply-held beliefs. While some Muslim women may cover their hair to make a statement or to pique curiosity in others, most who wear the veil do so because they believe that it is literally commanded of them. A few positions, such as a marriage registrar who has to deal with gay couples, may be inappropriate for such a person, but these are rare indeed. In the vast majority of cases, it is inconceivable that a civil servant's garb could affect anyone or anything in any concrete way.

Besides which, what is a religious symbol anyway? You may think that a turban is a clear example, but Osama bin Laden's infamous headgear was certainly not Islamically-mandated. Conversely, devout Muslim men often grow beards. How would the state distinguish between aspiring Wahhabis and those who just can't be bothered to shave? What about dreadlocks, associated with Rastafarianism? What if a woman dons a headscarf because her hair is wet? Not to mention, of course, how to draw the line on when a symbol becomes conspicuous. While Bernard Drainville claims that “good old-fashioned common sense” will prevail, we are talking about the same province whose language police earlier this year made international headlines for “pastagate.”

If there remains any doubt, the fact that the Charter would prohibit religious symbols for all government employees – not just those who deal with the public – makes it clear that this has little to do with religious neutrality. An argument might be made for a receptionist, but whether the people reviewing tax returns in a back room at Revenu Québec wear jeans, burkas or nothing at all simply cannot make any difference whatsoever to the rest of us. We don't know and therefore we shouldn't care.

So, What Is This About?

We shouldn't care – but we do. And therein lies what is likely the real motivation behind much of the Charter: the innate human aversion to the other. People, everywhere and always, have exhibited disdain, distrust and dislike of those who are different. And while we in North America's immigration society have successfully repressed this aspect of our nature better than most, we remain instinctively xenophobic. Given the transparently feeble arguments made in its defence, it is difficult to ascribe any other motivation to the Charter.

Of course, no government (certainly not in Canada) could explicitly state that it aimed to exclude anyone. Indeed, it is unlikely that those responsible would admit such a thing even to themselves. And so the Charter has been couched in the language of inclusion: by enacting clear rules and mandating neutrality for all, the state would create a level playing field where everyone feels at home. Bernard Drainville claimed that the Charter would “end tensions and misunderstandings” and “be a source of better agreement, harmony and cohesion.” The only plausible explanation for such absurd statements is that Drainville wants to believe that he is acting inclusively and therefore he tells himself that it is so.

Ultimately, it is not coercive measures but voluntary actions that create the healthy social climate of which Drainville speaks. Montreal City Councillor Marvin Rotrand put it best, when defending a local practice of not ticketing cars illegally parked near synagogues on Jewish high holidays. As he explained, “The idea of meeting requests … when it causes no prejudice to other citizens or to the city, is something that is natural for us and has been for nearly 30 years, without incident.” Incidentally, the person against whom he was defending the measure? Bernard Drainville, who upon learning of the longstanding practice on TV, sputtered, “We cannot start saying we are going to change the highway code and the parking signs according to different religions. It will never end … It makes no sense. We cannot manage a society like that.”

Get Over It

Drainville's outburst reminds us that in the minds of some, the absence of any actual problem is insufficient grounds to live and let live. The mere fact that someone is different and that their difference is on display is problem enough – hence the need for the Charter. The only difficulty that a woman in a hijab causes is the displeasure occasioned in those who wince at her appearance. While that may be a natural human response, it is not one that the state should indulge. The person who needs to suck it up is the one who takes offence at the sight of another, not the one who has done nothing other than to exist, differently. To say otherwise is to warp the concept of rights beyond recognition: rather than my right to swing my fist ending at your face, my right to choose my appearance ends at your eyes. If the mere fact that a person looks different means he is imposing himself on others, there is no limit to who can demand what from whom.

The limit, of course, is democracy: who has the most votes to carry the day. And it is telling that the crucifix in the National Assembly and the cross atop Mount Royal will remain untouched – not to mention that when asked if witnesses would continue to swear on the Bible, Drainville replied, “Oh, my God. We'll get back to you.” Indeed, the Christian example of a “conspicuous” religious symbol is an implausibly large cross more commonly worn by Orthodox priests than filing clerks. And, of course, a Christian asked to remove a highly visible pendant could easily replace it with the smaller version that the Charter gives as an example of permitted symbols.

For a turban-clad Sikh doctor, however, the alternative to working in one of Quebec's public hospitals is not a change of attire but of location. Enacting the Charter would no doubt drive away large numbers of qualified individuals who will go where they are welcome, as best illustrated by a brilliant ad by an Ontario hospital showing a covered woman and captioned, “We don't care what's on your head; we care what's in it.” Openness to diversity is an essential condition for a society to be successful and prosperous. Those that embrace the other flourish, while those that close themselves off flounder. If we let Pauline Marois and Bernard Drainville have their way, Quebec will take a huge step in the wrong direction. But if we stand up to them and their narrow-minded allies and ensure that this odious Charter is relegated to the dust bin, we will send a strong message about the kind of place we want Quebec to be: open, cosmopolitan and free. The choice is ours.

* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B. A. and an M. A. in political science from McGill.