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Shenaz Kermali

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Intolerance Is Quietly Sweeping Our Country

Posted: 09/12/2013 2:58 pm

There's a lot at stake for Canadians if the proposed Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms actually gets passed this fall.

The charter bans religious symbols from the public service and forbids employees from wearing garments like the Jewish skullcap, the Muslim hijab, or the Sikh turban. It does so on the grounds that such "symbols" of faith prevent Quebec from being "religiously neutral" and having a distinct French identity.

It also kindly offers an exception for small religious symbols, such as jewellery, provided they are not "too conspicuous." Examples that Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois government cites of acceptable religious symbols include a necklace with a cross charm, or a ring inscribed with the star of David. Apparently, such items would not threaten the "religious" neutrality of the French state -- not in the way a head scarf or turban would.

So does this mean a Muslim public servant would be permitted to wear a necklace with a small charm of the Kaaba (the cube-shaped shrine in Mecca) or a ring inscribed with a Crescent moon and star (another representative faith symbol)?

Would a Sikh school teacher wearing the kara, the metal bracelet that symbolizes restraint and gentility, also fall under the narrow list of exceptions to the rule? I doubt it. Especially when a large crucifix in the province's National Assembly will be allowed to stay, and also Christmas decorations.

Quebec's charter of values seethes with hypocrisy, but that's not the most shocking aspect of it. What's alarming is that the charter is even more restrictive than the 2004 French laws that inspired it. France's Jacques Chirac's ruling centre-right party at the time introduced the ban on religious symbols being worn in state schools across France on the same grounds -- to "safeguard" secularism. But while the French government exclusively targets teachers and students who choose to wear religious symbols, the PQ wants to eliminate any sign of a person's religious identity from every state institution -- from government employees to healthcare workers to daycare teachers. That will impact a massive number of Quebecers across a wide range of key jobs in the public sector.

It's a frightful prospect when a Canadian province starts adopting language and measures pioneered by European policymakers when it comes to minority issues -- not to mention ironic when so many policymakers (and minorities themselves) in the U.K. and Europe have always looked enviably upon Canada's millions of successful first and second-generation minorities and the relative ease with which they've managed to integrate into society.

What's frightening is that Pauline Marois seems to believe that Quebec needs to follow in the footsteps of France's policymakers, and the U.K.'s outspoken critics of multiculturalism, to help Quebecers feel a collective sense of French pride and identity. In a reference to past violence against the state by British-born Muslims, she recently told the French-language newspaper Le Devoir that a policy of multiculturalism in England has led to people "beating each other up and setting off bombs" because the society has no clear sense of identity.

Marois could not be more off the mark. The only impact this charter will have is the antithesis of what its proponents want. By denying citizens the right to wear what is an essential part of their personal identity, the policy risks of alienating several generations of Canadians. Marginalization leads to angry, disaffected young people, many of whom will soon be unemployed and struggle to feel accepted into the country in which they were born.

When I interviewed the wife of the British-born ringleader of London's transport bombings back in July 1995, she spoke passionately about the quiet, casual racism the family would often encounter in their north England neighbourhood. She did so not as a means to justify her husband's abhorrent actions but to give a picture of the tense and hostile climate they had grown up in. In the ten years I lived in the U.K. I spoke to numerous other young minorities who felt the need to turn to extremism to escape the alienation they felt from a society and government that they felt paid mere lip-service to its non-white citizens. What Marois fails to understand is that a segment of minorities in England have turned to violence not because they lacked a sense of British identity -- but because they felt the state did not genuinely accept, nor protect, their own minority citizens.

Thankfully, Canada, and Quebec, is a long way from the violence and challenges that Britain and its minorities face. As the Toronto Star noted earlier this week, multiculturalism as a concept has undergone a long debate in Britain and its history, policies, and politics are starkly different from Canada's.

But Quebec's charter of values is the strongest indication yet that this could change.

Another sign of a shift in attitude is the vandalism of a mosque in Quebec's Saguenay region, nearly 500 km northeast of Montreal last week. It's no coincidence that a letter filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric was sent to the mosque shortly after details of the charter were leaked. In a reference to the red liquid splattered outside the building, the letter stated that the mosque had been "baptized with fresh pig's blood from Quebec."

In the U.K., mosques under attack rarely make national news because they are such a common occurrence. In 2012 alone, 40 mosques were attacked. But in Canada, an attack on any place of worship is rare.

As Canadians, let's not close our eyes to the creeping intolerance and hypocrisy that is quietly sweeping our country. Last weekend saw a Muslim youth conference at the Palais des congrès, Montreal's largest convention centre, cancelled by Marois' government on the grounds that one of the speakers from France had made misogynistic statements. The PQ government demanded that Ottawa bar him from entering Canada.

This month will see two more controversial speakers arrive in Canada -- but given that they are here to speak about sharia law and jihad, it's unlikely the events will be cancelled despite a letter sent to the Minister of Public Safety from over 80 national community organizations requesting him to review their eligibility to enter Canada.

Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer are so widely perceived as far-right activists in the U.S. that even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Centre watchdogs have accused them of inciting hate. Their views, which include proclaiming that "Hitler inspired Islam", were also widely referenced by Anders Breivik in his hate-filled manifesto that sought to justify his killing of 77 innocent Norwegians in 2011.

It remains to be seen whether Ottawa respects the anger currently felt among Canada's minorities enough to prevent them from speaking publicly.

But Quebec's charter of values is the strongest indication yet that Quebec's level of tolerance of its minorities is changing. Also telling is the expulsion of Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani on Wednesday for criticizing Quebec's charter in an interview with CBC Radio. Since when do Canadian MPs get suspended from caucus for being critical of the official party line?

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