This Charter of Values is a minority government's stand. It could be called a political stand. It is not a people's stand.
And despite Minister Jean-Francois Lisee's grandiloquent title in a letter he sent on Jan. 10 to the New York Times, it is definitely not Quebec's latest stand.
When Mr. Lisee writes that "the governing Parti Quebecois proposed the Charter of Values, which sets out a vision of government that breaks sharply with Canada's broader multicultural ethos", he omits the crucial fact that his government's legislative project also breaks sharply with the vision of approximately one half of the citizens he is representing as a provincial cabinet minister. He forgets to mention that the ban on religious symbol worn by public sector employees has consistently been the object of the most divisive debate throughout the province in 2013. Polls, although they should be interpreted with care, suggest that although the Charter of Values is supported by more than 80 per cent of Parti Quebecois's supporters, its level of support in the population as a whole is below the 50 per cent threshold.
Unions, political parties, feminist organizations and even the sovereigntist movement have fractured into opposing factions, citizens of both camps have crowded the streets of the provinces' major cities to manifest their rejection or their support for the project. And the opposition remains strong. Among the prominent public figures engaged in the debate, Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard, who co-chaired the 2007 provincial commission on cultural and religious accommodations, also strongly criticize the measure, the latter affirming that the PQ government "launched [itself] into this operation in ignorance of the reality", threatening to violate people's freedom of choice and religion without serious and documented motives to do so.
As if there were no opposition to the Charter of Values within Quebec, Minister Lisee goes further: "As usual, though, when Quebec veers from the Canadian path, controversy breaks out. The Ottawa government has even vowed to challenge the charter in the national courts if it passes." While eager to highlight this potential altercation between the federal government and his own, Mr. Lisee obscures the fact that numerous community leaders, major hospitals, universities, school boards in -- and not out of -- Quebec, have publicly announced their intention to engage in a fight against the ban on religious wear, and to challenge it in court should it be enforced.
The most important consequence of the political fight led by Mr. Lisee's government with the Charter of Values -- officially presented to the National Assembly in November 2013 as Bill 60- has not been to set up Quebec's consensual principles against Canada's, but to set up Quebecers against each others. This crucial element remains nowhere to be seen, or inferred, in his missive to the New York Times, which also casts a shadow over many other aspects of his government's approach to legislate over the secular character of the State.
First, in an effort to align the Charter of values with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, he suggests "the Parti Québécois [has decided] to remove the crucifix that famously hangs in the legislature". This affirmation is rather surprising, as such a decision is absent from the law his colleague Bernard Drainville has presented to the Legislative Assembly in November and has never been more than an informal proposition made at the last minute by some members of the government in response to the critics formulated against the first version of the Charter by former members/leaders of the PQ themselves.
Second, he mentions the need to honour the legacy of the Quiet Revolution, a crucial period in Quebec's History. However, by presenting the Charter as the "next logical step along the path of secularization" and the "return of religious vestment in the public sector as a regression", he fails to recognize the difference between a world in which religious symbols were a part of the teachers' dress code because the clergy controlled the education system and one in which public servants have the freedom to display their own individual faith, while subjected to an ethics code and to strict rules protecting the public from any bias in the provision of public services.
Third, Mr. Lisee blames the "multicultural ethos" permeating the Canadian Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights that the federal government would invoke to contest the legality of the Charter of Values. The fact nonetheless remains that banning public servant from wearing religious symbols in the workplace would go against the principles and dispositions of Quebec's own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, according to Jacques Fremont, president of the province's Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. It might not be "the very federal Constitution that Quebec has never approved [that would] be invoked to strike [Bill 60] down", should it pass, but one of Quebec's quasi-constitutional legal documents.
There are two possible explanations for Mr. Lisee's decision to obscure the heated debate and fracture the Charter of Values has triggered within his own province. One possible justification is that he might have genuinely not acknowledged the thousands of people taking to the street to demonstrate their rejection of the Charter in its present form and its incompatibility with Quebec's own Charter of Human Rights and Freedom. Given Mr. Lisee's erudition and intelligence, that is however an unlikely scenario. The alternative is that he has consciously used the pages of an international publication to frame the issue as a constitutional fight with Canada. By doing so, he has given ammunitions to those who argue that the strategy behind the Parti Quebecois' Charter of Values is to capitalize on a -- purposely created -- fight with Canada to try legitimize their own constitutional option.
Either way, the words signed by Mr. Lisee in the New York Times were not worthy of a cabinet minister, who should not mistake his own stand for his people's, especially when expressing himself to an international public.
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