Quebec’s “Charter of Values” is disguised bigotry

Tomorrow, April 7, Quebec will hold an election with four parties hoping to form the next majority in the National Assembly. This is actually only the provincial assembly like every other Canadian province, but as with so much else, Quebec is different and defines itself as unique. The principal parties are the governing Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the Liberals, its long-time principal rival.

As is well known, the PQ has twice held unsuccessful referenda to separate from the rest of the Canada. The PQ first came to power in fall 1976, weeks after I had recently arrived at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take up a post-doctoral fellowship. As an American historian, I was fascinated to be in Canada at that time. The Atlantic provinces feared being cut off from the rest of Canada if separation occurred, given Quebec’s location between them and Ontario.

The PQ has been in power at other times since, but the PQ finally hopes to win a third referendum, when the time is ripe, as the party leaders contend. No urgency, they claim. But they have devised a brilliantly cynical scheme that is intended to drive those who don’t support separation to leave the province if the PQ prevails tomorrow.

This scheme is the PQ’s proposed “Charter of Values.” It would make Quebec Canada’s sole province devoid of overtly religious garments and other symbols of faith currently allowed for public sector workers. If the “Charter of Values” passes–if, that is, the PQ wins more seats than it has going into the election–this law might go into effect fairly soon.

In the March 22-23 Bangor Daily News Weekend one Jane Martin offered a strong defense of the “Charter of Values” from the perspective of someone who, raised in Biddeford, now lives and works in Montreal. She says that she currently researches her French-Canadian heritage.  Much of what she says is certainly true, such as the fading power of the conservative Catholic Church throughout Quebec and the many progressive policies of the PQ. (As with much else in Quebec, America pales by comparison in our modest  “safety net” for our most vulnerable citizens.)

But I am rather troubled by her insistence that, under the “Charter of Values,”  the inability of public sector workers to wear religious garb that in no way interferes with their jobs would be a wonderful step forward. Religious Muslim women, Sikh men, and Orthodox Jewish men, to take the major affected groups, would  be fired if they continued to wear garments in accordance with their religious beliefs. Meanwhile the famous Montreal Jewish Hospital would have to drop “Jewish” from its name. And the list of proposed changes goes on and on.

To be fair to the PQ, large crucifixes would have to be reduced in size. But the telling point is that they could still be worn. So much for a level playing–more precisely, working–field.

Two notable examples do not, though, appear on Martin’s approved list of changes or, to my knowledge, on any official PQ list: removing either the huge crucifix on the wall of  Quebec City’s National Assembly or the huge Cross atop Montreal’s Mount Royal. Why? Because, of course, the real aim of the “Charter of Values” is not solely to secularize the province but, no less, to pressure those Quebec residents who are not of French heritage either to conform to this kind of cultural homogenization or to follow the thousands of earlier Quebec residents from the late 1970′s on and go elsewhere–thereby increasing the PQ’s portion of future voters.

True, some Jewish Quebec residents and probably some Muslim and Sikh counterparts DO support the “Charter of Values.” But they are, I suspect, a tiny number among their respective groups. And they do not wear religious garb or symbols.

As the election neared, many Quebec college students whose permanent home is in another province were denied the opportunity to vote even if they had been living in Quebec for several years. This was another cynical PQ means of reducing opposition votes tomorrow as most of those students attend McGill and other Quebec colleges and universities where English remains the dominant language.

Whatever the outcome of Quebec’s election, no one should accept the romanticized accounts of Ms. Martin and others that a decisive PQ victory would usher in the toleration of differences that one normally associates with genuinely secular societies. Instead, the PQ party would soon begin the process of sanctioning religious intolerance.