Quebec's Values Charter: Controversial Religious Symbols Plan Unveiled

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The Quebec government is to release its proposals today for a so-called
The Quebec government is to release its proposals today for a so-called "values charter" aimed at restricting religious clothing and symbols in the public sector. (CP)

Quebec would become the only jurisdiction in North America to impose a sweeping ban on religious clothing for public employees including at schools, hospitals and courthouses, under a "Charter of Values" whose details were released Tuesday following months of speculation.

If adopted by the legislature, the plan would apply to hijabs, kippas, turbans and larger-than-average crucifixes worn by religious public servants.

It would impose a career-or-faith dilemma on judges, police, and prosecutors; public daycare workers; teachers and school employees; hospital workers; municipal personnel; and employees at state-run liquor stores and the auto-insurance board.

The early reaction suggests the plan will not pass in the current legislature, in its present form, which leaves two likely outcomes: it will either be watered down for adoption now, or be kept intact for later use as an election issue when the Parti Quebecois seeks a majority government.

The minister responsible for the plan presented it as a guarantor of equality, within a secular state.

"The time has come to unite us around clear values and common rules," said minister Bernard Drainville.

"This is measured, balanced. Quebec is increasingly a multiethnic, multireligious society. This is a great source of richness. It's also why we need clear rules."

The plan released Tuesday stems from the pro-independence party's election platform a year ago, and from a longer-term shift toward identity-politics populism the PQ began a half-decade ago.

The details were swiftly slammed by much of the political class.

The federal government announced that it will seek the advice of the Department of Justice and then head to court if the proposal is deemed to violate fundamental rights. Both main Montreal mayoral candidates also vigorously condemned the idea.

Under the plan, not all forms of secularism are treated equally.

The enormous crucifix protruding from the public property above Montreal's Mount Royal will be spared. So will the cross that looms above the legislative chamber. The logic according to the PQ is that, even in this secular state, Quebec has a historic identity to protect: "The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage," Drainville said.

So while politicians continue to enact laws underneath a giant cross, low-level public employees would have to tuck their Christian symbolism away, as would Muslims, Sikhs and Jews with their religious headwear.

Drainville grappled with questions about other inconsistencies.

Would elected officials be subject to these rules? No, he replied, arguing that voters have a right to choose their representative. That means Quebecers could, in theory, elect a cabinet minister or premier with a hijab — who would then force her employees to remove theirs.

What about courtroom witnesses and elected politicians who, in this staunchly secular state, still swear an oath on that decidedly non-secular document, the Bible? Drainville appeared caught off-guard by the question: "Oh, my God," he replied, slowly, "we'll get back to you."

And how about city council meetings which begin with prayers, in places like Saguenay? Would this secularism policy allow that? Drainville declined to answer the question.

He also brushed off a suggestion that his plan would add to the bureaucracy. One news report said the advertising plan, alone, will cost the government $1.9 million.

Perhaps the most important reaction came from the Quebec legislature's third party, which appears to hold the swing vote on the issue.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec called the PQ plan "far too radical" and demanded that it be scaled back to apply only to those public servants, like police and judges, in authority positions.

To illustrate one of the party's main criticisms of the plan, the CAQ critic at a news conference held up a tiny crucifix necklace next to a larger one.

Who would go about measuring these crosses, she asked, before warning of an impending bureaucratic boondogle where the $1.9 million ad campaign is just the beginning.

"Will this require a religious police?" said the Coalition's Nathalie Roy.

"This will be hell to apply."

The PQ government listed many institutions that could be spared from the rules if they obtain an opt-out clause, applicable for five years. The five-year exemption would need to be adopted by an institution's board of directors or by the local city council.

Drainville stressed that the opt-out clause is intended only as an intermediary measure and should not be used by institutions to "systematically" exempt themselves.

While past polls have suggested such an idea could be popular in Quebec, a number of politicians immediately voiced their opposition Tuesday.

Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said Justice Department lawyers will be consulted and, if the plan is found to violate fundamental freedoms, "we will defend those rights vigorously." Montreal mayoral candidates Denis Coderre and Marcel Cote were also unsparing in their criticism.

The NDP and Liberals also denounced the idea. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did so during a visit to Montreal, where he was opening his party's byelection office in one of Quebec's most multiethnic ridings.

Trudeau described the issue as a nationalist distraction from the issues people truly care about, like the economy and health care.

And he made a prediction — one that's far from guaranteed at this point, given the recent polls on the issue: naming Premier Pauline Marois personally, Trudeau speculated that her "agenda" of resorting to identity politics will ultimately fail.

"Quebecers are better than this," he said.

"And Madame Marois is going to find that out the hard way."

As it stands, for now, the Charter of Values is purely hypothetical.

The minority PQ government cannot pass legislation without support from one other party — and it has said it will seek to build consensus with them before introducing a bill.

The government plans to hold public consultations before tabling a bill this fall.

The PQ idea flows from an election promise to bar people from wearing religious clothing like hijabs and kippas while working in government institutions.

The party has been emphasizing hot-button identity issues since it was drubbed in the 2007 provincial election. In that election the PQ finished behind the conservative, populist, and now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec.

Some pundits now speculate that the PQ might be trying to drag out the debate to make Quebec's identity — and not other issues, like the economy or social services — the heart of the next election campaign.

Every recent poll conducted on the issue suggests that at least 50 per cent of Quebecers, and in some cases much more than that, have opposed accommodating minorities on religious issues.

The most recent example was the ill-fated soccer turban ban.

While polls suggested it was popular in Quebec, the prohibition on Sikh headwear was overturned following an outcry elsewhere in Canada and an edict from soccer's world governing body.

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