As the debate is heating up in Quebec about religious accommodations, it would be a worthwhile idea to consider some balanced policy options. For instance, adopting a code that would guide citizens, institutions and businesses who face different demands of religious and cultural accommodations could help in easing interactions within a culturally diverse population. Moving in that direction could also help to foster a dialogue between the legislator and the citizens, and to get the feedback allowing for this code to evolve, as the Quebec society changes.
It is most deplorable that Pauline Marois' government has taken the opposite direction by proposing, last week, its charter of values.
The idea of a code, of a set of guidelines, remains a good one insofar as it protects the notion of human rights and freedoms. Such a code is no longer valuable if it becomes a legal tool to discriminate and disrespect those who differ from the majority.
By taking away the right to display their faith -- and hence a part of their identity -- through religious wear for some of us, the charter of values hurts Quebecers' convictions. It collides with our hopes and with our interpretation of civics and mutual respect. It leads to discrimination, and is unworthy of Quebec's heritage, and a threat to the unfolding of Quebecers' potential.
Where is the evidence?
One would expect that, to come with such a restrictive and intrusive policy, the government would have some upsetting and convincing evidence that the fact that civil servants have worn religious symbols --kippas, turbans, hijabs -- has lately caused some serious problems. However, when asked how many complaints had, in the past years, been transmitted from citizens regarding a nurse, a university professor or a clerk in the department of Finance displaying some religious symbol, Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for elaborating the Charter of values, gave quite a weak answer. "As far as I am aware, this number is not known," he admitted.
In the department of rhetorics...
Short from any clear evidence or statistics, the government has filled the shelves in the department of electoral rhetoric with various unconvincing attempts to legitimize its crusade against religious wear for civil servants.
In the past week, Premier Marois has relentlessly evoked the importance of protecting the neutrality and the appearance of neutrality of the state and of its institutions. She has yet to prove that this purpose would not be better fulfilled by an adequate ethics code and by well-defined professional norms, rather than by a discriminatory ban on religious wear.
Her government has also skillfully reduced wearing religious symbol to a simple choice of clothing and accessories, arguing that Quebecers could still opt for religious wear outside of public sector workplaces. But contrary to what seems to be the government's belief, religious wear -- unlike ties or boots -- often cannot be worn only part time, or only inbetween working shifts. And while the government has tried to demonstrate its open-mindedness by ensuring that discrete displays of one's faith could be tolerated, it unapologetically ignores that all religious symbols are not perfect substitutes. Regardless of our Premier's opinion, it is not possible, for instance, to trade a kippa for cufflinks engraved with the Star of David.
The PQ's rhetorical strategy on that matter is simply ridiculous.
While the list of evidence and arguments supporting the Charter of values is remarkably limited, it seems that there is no end to the list their incongruities and the injustices it would lead to: creation of a precedent in terms of workplace discrimination against minorities, limitation of many women's employment opportunities, implementation of asymmetric standards between religions for which the practice leads to different degrees of visibility... Those have already been thoroughly discussed lately. There is, however, another deplorable consequence to the implementation of the legislation proposed by the Parti Quebecois that deserves to be highlighted: it would legally legitimize the interpretation of cultural diversity as an anomaly.
This interpretation was made very clear by Premier Marois in an interview with Le Devoir last week. Explaining her government's explosive charter, she explained that it was meant to help Quebecers' whose religious faith and practices are different from those of the historic majority "advancing towards the norm". As a result, the charter would send the message that is it not "normal", for example, for a teacher to wear a kippa, a turban, a hijab... a message that would be internalized by the public in general, and by the kids in the schoolyard in this particular case.
This message is nowhere close to our society's feeling about diversity, and nowhere close to the message that we should send to a new generation of Quebecers.
Moving forward with its charter, the PQ is dangerously going down a road where stereotypes rule and where suspicion towards cultural and religious diversity is legitimate. It is opting for a policy that hits us violently, that hurts our convictions, that collides with our hopes and with our interpretation of civics and mutual respect.