The Dangerous Logic of Quebec's 'Charter of Values'

The Canadian province is debating whether to prohibit public employees from wearing clothing with "overt" religious symbolism.
 norhafydzah mahfodz/Flickr

“That’s it, I’m moving to Canada.” It’s probably one of the most consulted entries in the modern American liberal’s phrasebook. That, or, “I’m moving to France.” Although it’s far easier said than done (visas can be tricky), it’s not hard to see why the sentiment is so popular among fed-up Democrats. Canada and France, home to universal healthcare, state-funded arts, and rigorous gun control, are generally havens of progressive values. One would think the province of Quebec, which stands at the cultural intersection of French and Canadian progressivism, would be the ideal liberal locale.

But Quebec could soon follow France's lead on government-enforced secularism and depart even more than it has previously from the policies of tolerance and multiculturalism that Canada is known for, all in the name of “values.”

The Quebec Charter of Values (Bill 60) was originally proposed in May 2013 by Bernard Drainville, Quebec’s minister of democratic institutions and active citizenship and a member of the nationalist-separatist Parti Québécois, which won a minority mandate in the 2012 general election. Among other things, the legislation seeks to prohibit public-sector employees from wearing “objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation”—items like kippahs, turbans, hijabs, and even larger-than-average crucifixes. The ban would apply to all civil servants, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and police officers. It remains unclear whether the bill will pass and withstand legal challenges, but 60 percent of Quebecers now support the charter’s ban on religious symbols.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Drainville attempted to defend the controversial measure: “From a historical perspective, Quebec was a very religious society for a very long time. In the 1960s we decided as a society to separate the Catholic Church from the state. We basically decided to become a secular state. And I suppose what we are doing with the charter is the logical extension of this decision made in the 1960s.”

What Drainville said is true: Prior to 1960, Quebec was an intensely religious and socially conservative province. It was run by the likes of Maurice Duplessis, the sixteenth premier of Quebec, whose right-wing, nationalist policies ushered in an era known to Quebecers as La Grande Noirceur, or “The Great Darkness.” The election of Liberal Party Premier Jean Lesage in 1960 launched a decade-long end to The Great Darkness—La Révolution Tranquille, or “The Quiet Revolution,” was characterized by a swift provincial shift to the political left. Schools and hospitals were removed from Church control, Duplessis’s suffocating anti-union policies were abolished, a social-democratic welfare state was created, and political ties with France were substantially strengthened (capped off by a 1967 visit from Charles de Gaulle, in which he delivered his famous “Vive le Québec libre!” speech).

But this leftward shift has been accompanied by less liberal nationalism that endures today. Quebec is home to another controversial charter, the Charter of the French Language, which declares French the official language of the province and requires all product labels, restaurant menus, and public and commercial signage to be printed in French (other languages are permitted, but the French text must be of equivalent or greater prominence.) The so-called “language police” who enforce these regulations mean business. Last February, agents from Quebec’s Office of the French Language (OQLF) ordered the owner of an Italian restaurant to replace Italian words on his menu (like pasta and calamari) with French alternatives (pâtes and calmars). In 2000, the owner of an Indian restaurant was threatened with a $7,000 fine for providing customers with paper coasters printed with the phrase, “Canada’s No. 1 selling British ale.” Last December, a Montreal hospital faced a fine of $20,000 when a disgruntled employee reported two Haitian co-workers for conversing in Creole on the job.

Demonstrators protest against Quebec's proposed Charter of Values in Montreal, in September 2013. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

There are, of course, significant cultural and political differences between France and Quebec. As the Montreal-based columnist Lise Ravary recently wrote, “We share a language, a common history, cultural references and not much else. Ours is a unique francophone take on North American culture.” Still, there are more parallels between the two than a shared passion for la langue de l’amour. Both societies successfully overturned political cultures in which clerical meddling was the norm: the French in 1789, the Quebecers in 1960. The former revolution was far bloodier than the latter, but each produced anti-clerical attitudes that persist to this day.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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