A charter of exclusion

September 25, 2013

Canadian socialist Roger Annis examines the controversy around a Quebec government proposal to prohibit state workers from wearing religious symbols or dress.

TENS OF thousands of people marched in Montreal on September 14 to voice their opposition to the Quebec government's newly proposed Charter of Quebec Values. It was a powerful expression of opposition to the divisiveness and prejudices that the Parti québécois (PQ) government's charter proposal will produce among the Quebec population if it is not defeated.

The charter is supposed to affirm the rights and values of Quebec society, including separation of church and state in affairs of government. This, it is said, will "unite" the Quebec population like never before. The charter would become part of existing human rights legislation.

But it contains a highly divisive and controversial measure that would prohibit employees in government and public services from wearing religious symbols or dress while at work, including such items as headscarves and turbans.

The Montreal demonstration was organized by a coalition of groups called the Collectif québécois contre l'islamophobie (CQCI, or Quebec Collective Against Islamaphobia in English). The march included such groups as the Conseil musalman de Montréal (Muslim Council of Montreal), the Centre communautaire des femmes sud-asiatiques (South Asian Women's Community Centre), the Idle No More indigenous sovereignty movement, the Sikh population and sections of the Jewish population. (See a large photo collection of the action by Montreal photographer Darren Ell.)

Montreal marches against the so-called Charter of Quebec Values
Montreal marches against the so-called Charter of Quebec Values

One participant told this writer by phone that he estimated there were 20,000 people on the march. That included many Montreal residents of North African origin. The same figure is also cited in several news reports. March organizers said 40,000 people took part.

Demonstrators brought coucoussières (couscous cooking pots) to the march as noisemakers. The clanging of pots and pans (casseroles) was a prominent feature of the student protests that rocked Montreal and the province of Quebec during the spring and summer of 2012. Students fought a proposed hike in post-secondary tuition fees as well as harsh police and judicial repression unleashed by the Liberal Party government in power at the time. The PQ rode to power last September (as a minority government) thanks in part to the rejection of the Quebec population of the Liberal attacks on students and their courageous resistance.

One sign on the march summed up what progressive Quebec opinion is saying about the proposed charter: "Our values include tolerance." A Canadian Press report showed a photo of two girls on the march wearing the Quebec flag as a hijab (head-covering scarf).

What else to read

For comprehensive analysis of political, constitutional and civil rights issues in Quebec, see the various articles posted by Ottawa writer Richard Fidler to his blog "Life On The Left," including Fidler's Does Quebec need a charter of secularism?, this statement by Quebec nationalist leader Jean Dorion opposing the PQ's "charter of exclusion," Amir Khadir and Françoise David's Secularism--For a broad, open and democratic debate, Fidler's Quebec left debates strategy for independence, Roksana Bahramitash's March in solidarity with the veil, a Quebec Muslim feminist urges and Fidler's Quebec's debate on "reasonable accommodation"--a socialist view.

Mainstream Jewish organizations in Montreal did not participate in the march because it was held on Yom Kippur day and because they say they will not associate with the CQCI, the main organizer.

OPPONENTS OF the proposed charter deem it racist and exclusive, claiming it is unfairly targeting immigrants and particularly Muslims.

Many prominent supporters of Quebec nationalism and sovereignty have spoken out against the reactionary proposals in the charter, including former member of parliament (MP) Jean Dorion, former student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Québec Solidaire (QS) party co-leader Françoise David. A lengthy and detailed online petition against the charter (in French and English), titled "For an inclusive Quebec," has so far gathered more than 12,000 signatures from a cross-section of Quebec society, including those who support the goal of an independent Quebec.

The charter has split Quebec society down the middle. A Léger poll conducted on September 13 and 14 shows opposition to the measure at 42 percent and support at 43 percent. The pro-independence Bloc Québécois party in the federal parliament has expelled one of its five elected members, popular Montreal MP Maria Mourani, for her opposition. She is of Lebanese origin. The expulsion has heightened concern in the ranks of the Quebec sovereignty movement.

Quebec's largest public-sector union, the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec (SFPQ, the provincial government employees union), has come out in support of the charter. But most unions have been hesitant to take a position. They say they will take some time to study the measure.

That's the position of the FTQ, the largest union federation in the province with 600,000 members, the CSN and the CSQ. The latter is the largest union of teachers in the province with 130,000 teacher-members.

The third-largest union of teachers, the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE, with 32,000 members) has expressed "great reserve." In a September 10 statement, it said, "Secularism must apply to institutions (of the state) rather than to individuals because the wearing of religious symbols is not equivalent to proselytizing."

The leftist QS says it supports the PQ measure insofar as it promotes secularism, but opposes the ban on wearing items of religious symbolism in state workplaces. It says the measure is particularly discriminatory towards women because it appears directed at the wearing of the hijab, especially in schools.

The party also notes the discrepancy in the charter proposal concerning religious symbols because it allows up to five years of exemptions to colleges and post-secondary and health-care institutions, but not primary schools or day care facilities.

SUCH DISCREPANCIES are abundant in the measure. The most blatant is the continued presence of a Christian cross prominently mounted inside the Quebec National Assembly. There are thousands of crosses mounted in public places throughout the province, not least the huge, metal, illuminated cross that sits on top of the small mountain (Mont Royal) that towers over downtown Montreal. These are all "grandfathered" by the charter, deemed to be an untouchable part of Quebec's cultural heritage.

Leaders of the three large parties in the federal parliament have spoken against the proposal. Also opposed is Charles Taylor, co-author of the 2008 report commissioned by the then-Quebec government proposing measures for "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants, national minorities and people of religious faith in the institutions of the Quebec state and society.

A new poll by Forum Research shows the Liberal Party benefitting the most from reaction to the charter among federal parties. Thirty six percent of those polled would vote Liberal in a federal election while 23 percent would vote NDP and 22 percent Bloc Québécois. The NDP scored its 2011 federal electoral breakthrough in Quebec (57 seats out of 75) with 43 percent of the vote.

The Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party of Quebec) is opposed to the charter. Its leader says the measure will pass "over my dead body." The rightist Coalition avenir du Québec (CAQ), the third party in the National Assembly, supports it on condition that its restrictions apply only to state employees in positions of authority (teachers, police, prison guards, etc.). CAQ support will be crucial to eventual passage in the Quebec National Assembly, should the proposal get that far.

Coincidentally, the government of France last week announced a proposed "charter of secularism" to be posted in all educational institutions in the country. It is a largely symbolic measure that will state the rules and regulations of present law in the country.

In 2004, the French government banned the wearing of "ostentatious religious symbols" in state-run schools. The reactionary measure largely targeted the wearing of the hijab by girls and women. In 2010, the government banned the wearing of face coverings in public, including those required by religious custom.

The integration of immigrants and other ethnic minorities into Quebec society and the issue of what constitutes the Quebec nation have been intensely debated in Quebec in recent decades. The debate is complicated by the longstanding use and abuse by pro-federalists in Canada and Quebec of Quebec's immigrant population and of federal "multiculturalism" policies to attack and undermine Quebec nationalism.

Thus, liberal values upholding the secularism of the state (neutrality in religious matters) and freedom to worship and believe have become intertwined with the politics of Quebec's historic struggle to free itself from the oppression of the Canadian state.

A version of this article was first published at Rabble.ca.

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