THE BLOG
12/14/2013 01:17 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

How the Values Charter Will Affect Quebec's Children

Quebec Values Charter or, The Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests.

Whew! I guess we are all paying attention now. Or are we? The proposed bill, tabled by the Parti Quebecois in November, may be a mouthful but it does not appear to have passed through the brains or imaginations of those who proposed it.

In the discussion that followed the introduction of the Quebec Charter, many people spent time and energy explaining that secularism is not a neutral point of view because it prefers a non-religious society over a religious one. Many have spoken and written about the effect that banning "ostentatious" religious symbols will have on those who lead their lives and form their identities in a way that visibly expresses religious affiliation.

But what about the effect that this bill, if passed, will have on the rest of the Quebec population that does not profess a faith in a visible fashion?

Imagine your child's favourite teacher. This teacher is known to provide her students with an enriched classroom, a classroom where engaged students learn about democracy and critical thinking. She treats each student with respect and consideration. She honours their differences.

Now imagine that this exemplary teacher is a person who subscribes to a religious faith for which she dresses in a particular fashion. She may be a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, an Orthodox Jewish woman who keeps her hair covered by a wig or hat, a Sikh woman who wears her long hair in a turban, or she may be a nun who wears a habit. Her faith is of great importance to her, but so is her profession. If the Quebec Charter is passed, she will be forced to choose which one to give up.

Should she remove the outward signs of her faith so that she can keep teaching? What message will this give to the students in her class? When they ask about the sudden change in their teacher's appearance, what should she say? When they ask you, the other adults in their lives, what will you say?

And what if the teacher chooses to leave her profession rather than change her religious practice? How will she explain this to her students before she leaves? How will you explain it to your child who is missing her teacher and wondering why she left? What will you tell your child about the country in which you live? Is Canada still a democracy that respects human rights and protects people who differ from the majority? Or do we make people leave who cannot or will not conform?

Remember the word "accommodation" among the 28 words? It is a word used when discussing human rights. The principle of accommodation is based on the understanding that to treat people equitably, we cannot treat everyone exactly the same. This is particularly true when a regulation that may be acceptable to a large number of people, actually causes harm to those who seek the accommodation.

A few decades ago, school boards prevented women who taught in schools from wearing trousers or pants. It was deemed to be indecent for professional women to be seen wearing anything other than a dress or skirt. Like their students, teachers would have been disciplined for wearing trousers on the job. The first woman in Ontario who was permitted to wear trousers while teaching was accommodated because she had a disability that affected the appearance of her legs. Now our human rights codes tell us dress codes based on sex may well infringe the right to "equality of men and women," more of the 28 words.

But what else changed? It became clear that trouser-wearing female teachers were unlikely to shock children, have a negative effect on them or cause them to turn against their parents' values. And that treating women equitably was a good lesson for their students.

Teachers are often the first, and sometimes the only people who teach children about democracy and human rights. If we permit our governments to treat our teachers in ways that discriminate against them based on their sex, disability, religion, or other such differences, what will our students learn?