All nationalisms risk veering off course into intolerance. Fortunately, in Quebec, throughout the many years that we have wrestled with issues of identity and nationhood, some of the most ardent leaders of the nationalist movement have also been staunch advocates of inclusion. René Lévesque said that "a nation is judged by how it treats its minorities"; his Minister of Immigration, Gérald Godin, urged Quebecers to "form with the cultural communities a new world, a model society, better, free, open and welcoming"; and Lucien Bouchard spoke of a nationalism that "no longer seeks homogeneity but embraces diversity and pluralism."
However, the so-called "charter of values" reportedly being contemplated by our provincial government would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec's nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades. Indeed, banning manifestations of religious belief -- both for those who work in public institutions and for those served by them -- would constitute a radical break not only with our provincial and federal charters of rights and with international human rights law, but with Quebec values themselves, as articulated by icons of Quebec's nationalist movement.
The idea of prohibiting religious symbols and attire in the public service is based on a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. This fundamental tenet of free societies demands that public institutions and those who work for them be religiously neutral, not religiously neutered. To deny public employees the right to manifest their faith is to falsely imply that a bureaucrat or a nurse or a sanitation worker in a hijab is incapable of doing her job in a competent and professional manner. In fact, there is no contradiction between offering Quebecers impartial service from public employees, and offering those employees religious freedom.
A secular society is one in which there is no state religion, with no religious test for those aspiring to public office, and equal treatment for all. However, a society that bars individuals -- including those who work for or interact with the state -- from adhering publicly to their faith is not secular, it is constricted. Such a prohibition would divide Quebecers into two categories -- secular and observant -- and would effectively prevent members of the latter group from holding certain jobs or receiving certain services.
This would create immediate, practical problems. For instance, would an elderly Jewish man be required to discard the kippa he has worn all his life in order to receive palliative care? Would ambulance workers at the scene of a car accident have to remove the patka of the Sikh boy in the back seat before administering CPR?
But the ban would also have profound long-term consequences. It would force religious Quebecers "into the closet", and send the message that religious adherence is something to be ashamed of. Moreover, if religious symbols are barred from the public sphere, they and those who wear them will be rendered even more foreign and separate from the majority. Far from encouraging integration, therefore, such a ban would reinforce divisions based on religious affiliation.
Religious freedom is a right guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has been repeatedly affirmed that the freedom to hold a belief is inseparable from the freedom to express it. Therefore, should the Quebec government go ahead with these measures, the matter would undoubtedly end up before the courts, but it would be regrettable if it ever got that far.
Testing the judiciary to see how much trampling on minority rights the government can legally get away with is not a recipe for a free and open society. Proponents of the proposed measures argue that they enjoy widespread support. If this is true, it is both unfortunate and entirely beside the point. In free societies, minority rights are not subject to majority rule.
Proponents argue as well that, without clear rules delimiting religious accommodation, we will have to keep perpetually navigating the grey areas of religious difference. Well, yes. There are complications inherent to diverse societies, but banning diversity is no solution. Indeed, the only societies with greater problems than those that embrace pluralism are those that do not.
If the Quebec government truly does proceed with its charter in this form, it will move us away from our liberal democratic traditions, and establish exclusion and division as Quebec values.
Lévesque would turn in his grave.
Follow Irwin Cotler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@irwincotler