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.

French secularism, or laïcité, is a two-fold concept: It denotes the absence of religion in government affairs, and the absence of government in religious affairs. And it was enshrined by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which read: “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” The French hold their strain of secularism quite dear, and even have an agency, the Stasi Commission, committed to rooting out undue overlaps of church and state where they exist.

The basis of French secularism, like our Constitution’s Establishment Clause, is an arena for fierce debate. Drainville might argue that the display of overt religious symbols by public employees would “interfere with the established Law and Order”—the idea behind similar French laws, including a 2010 ban on wearing face-covering garments in public, and a 2004 ban on wearing religious symbols in public schools.

But Drainville and his allies seem less interested in warning of potential disruptions to public order than in making questionable appeals to progressivism. At a hearing for the bill last week, Michelle Blanc, a transgender woman, spoke for nearly an hour in support of Bill 60, appealing to Quebecers’ largely pro-LGBT sentiments (same-sex marriage has been legal in the province since 2004). “When I see a veil, the mental image I have is of all the gays who were hung high and low in the public square … in certain Arab countries,” she said. But Muslims are not an ideological monolith. As Michel Seymour, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montreal (and a Quebec sovereigntist), told The Globe and Mail after testifying against Bill 60, “There are fundamentalists who don’t wear headscarves. There are people who wear headscarves who aren’t fundamentalists. We’re firing at the wrong target.”

The charter also seeks to affirm gender equality through its restrictions on dress: “The National Assembly reiterates the importance it attaches to the value of equality between women and men … [and] recognizes that it is appropriate to provide for certain measures to ensure that these values are upheld,” the bill states. The wording suggests that certain religious symbols—the Islamic veil, for instance—speak to the wearer’s inherent disregard for gender equality. Again, this is not something that can be assumed of all 1.6 billion adherents of the world’s second-largest religion.

Similar faux-feminist arguments were made by French politicians to defend the 2010 ban on veils, but they were ultimately corruptions of feminist philosophy, ensnared in Western ideas of female empowerment. As Hind Ahmas, a divorced mother and French Muslim who chooses to wear a niqab, told The Guardian in 2011: “The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they’ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I’d be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were ‘walking prisons’. Well, that’s exactly where we’ve been stuck by this law.”

This co-opting of liberal values essentially confuses the concept of secularism. There is little difference between a Muslim imposing Muslim dress on a non-Muslim, and an atheist demanding all Muslim women go bareheaded. Yet the Parti Québécois is raising the specter of the former to justify the codification of the latter into law. Some advocates of Bill 60 appear less concerned with progressivism, or even secularism, than with fending off the perceived encroachment of religious (mainly Muslim) fundamentalism. Claire Rochette, a Bill 60 supporter who spoke to The Globe and Mail, summed it up perfectly: “[Bill 60] is essential for the survival of the Québécois. Our ancestors have fought to survive for 400 years. We suffered enough from the Catholic Church. We don’t want any religion to dominate us again.”

In many ways, the Church’s take is actually more progressive than that of the secularist Parti Québécois. As Monsignor Pierre-Andre Fournier, in a statement from the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, warned last September, “While it may be true that the state is secular, society is pluralist.… People are free to believe or not believe … no official religion, but no official atheism, either.”