08/21/2013 12:31 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT

I Don't Care If My Doctor Wears a Hijab, And Neither Should Quebec

When the Journal de Montréal leaked the PQ's proposed "Charter of Quebec Values" (what used to be known as the "Charter of Secularism") yesterday, it managed to stir up the usual debates over what constitutes Quebec values and whether one can even accommodate and respect religious minorities in a society that wants to put the emphasis on secularism.

According to the leaked report (the charter is supposed to be unveiled sometime in September) public employees, including civil servants, judges, doctors, nurses, teachers, and police would be forbidden from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban, and the Muslim hijab.

Women and girls would have to remove their veils if they want to attend public schools or receive health care. The Charter would, most likely, not affect private institutions, like private schools and the Jewish General Hospital, but that still remains to be seen.

The "Charter of Quebec Values" would amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to include the principles of equality, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of public institutions.

The Quebec government's website (immigration and cultural communities section) clearly enumerates what it considers to be Quebec values.

  • Speaking French is a necessity

  • A free and democratic society

  • A society enriched by its diversity

  • A society based on the rule of law

  • Political and religious powers are separate

  • Men and women have the same rights

  • The exercise of human rights and freedoms must respect the rights and freedoms of others and the general well-being

First off, calling them "Quebec values" doesn't appropriate them. They are, with the exception of the emphasis on language, pretty straightforward Western values about equality, democracy and secularism. These values are already the status quo in Quebec, so I'm not even sure why we need a Chapter to define them for us.

Second of all, there's a slight touch of irony in proclaiming that we're a society enriched by our diversity, while seeking to put an end to this diversity; at least with regards to any visible religious symbols.

Civilisation is hideously fragile. There are always simmering tensions when you scratch beneath the surface. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society requires a non-stop balancing act to ensure that everyone's rights and freedoms are protected and valued, without giving an unwarranted and unfair advantage to one over the other.

But when the politics of division and the blame game begin, when the "nous" seeks to drown out "les autres", ugliness rears its ugly head because that's what you choose to feed. The PQ proposal to introduce a Charter of Quebec Values has, unfortunately, done just that.

This misguided attempt to "protect" Quebec values is doubly insulting. First off, it implies that this province's culture and heritage are so frail and delicate that they constantly need propping up and protection against the constant onslaught of "les invasions barbares", and second, it attempts to introduce a selective cafeteria-style secularism, where the government gets to pick and choose what's allowed and what isn't.

One can debate endlessly on how to best introduce and enforce secularism in our society, and numerous intelligent and well-reasoned debates have already been had. I suspect that, for most Quebecers, the argument lies in the definition of secularism.

For many it is the complete and utter rejection of all religion in public affairs. There is nothing inherently wrong with a province that suffered under the church's domination and unscrupulous interference in all public and private matters, wanting to disassociate -- loudly and clearly -- from religion. One's faith should not have any bearing on public affairs, and we see -- on a daily basis around the world -- the horrid results when it does.

For others, however -- myself included -- secularism is simply the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element. That no one religion will be given more importance than another, but that equal respect will be paid to all. In other words, I don't care whether you are a believer, what God or Gods you believe in, and what you wear to demonstrate that belief, as long as it doesn't affect and interfere with my life.

The main problem I have with the PQ's staunch commitment to secularism -- and what offends me the most -- is that it is inconsistent and hypocritical. One can hardly demand that visible symbols of one's faith are limited and/or removed from public places, while a gigantic cross still looms over the City of Montreal and a cross hangs on the walls of the National Assembly. If we want to preach secularism, it should be all or nothing. Don't just purge some religious symbols, while protecting others. That's not secularism; that's discrimination.

When the Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions, and the person in charge of the "Chapter of Quebec Values", Bernard Drainville, states that the chapter will affirm a number of values to which the vast majority of Quebecers adhere to, does he really believe that the vast majority of Quebecers believe in the exclusion of others? Because, by deeming unacceptable "some" religious symbols, while claiming that "others" are part of your heritage, you're essentially excluding people and telling them that "your" heritage is important, while "theirs" is, well... less so.

I find it ludicrous that as an atheist, I find myself constantly fighting for the right of the faithful to wear whatever religious symbols they want. Their faith (when it doesn't seek to impose or proselytize) is not an affront to my beliefs (or non-beliefs, in this case). While I absolutely support the separation of church and state, I see no problem with religious symbols in public life. Your faith and the ways you visibly choose to display it (whether with a cross, a kippa, or a hijab) doesn't affect my life. If people claim to be offended or disturbed by these symbols, it speaks more to their prejudices about who that person is than the person perpetrating the "offense."

Unfortunately, even if unintended, the PQ's proposal has created the kind of toxic environment where xenophobia and racism find fertile ground to grow. The debate over whether the cross should remain in the National Assembly has become nothing more than a state-sanctioned rant by old-stock Quebecers, reminiscing about the gold ol' days.

The comments section of any opinion piece on the topic has been inundated with hateful, fearful rhetoric about the onslaught of burka-wearing Muslims threatening our way of life.

I've got news for you: if someone's kippa, hijab, or turban threatens your way of life, perhaps it's time to reassess your own values. I can't walk a block in Montreal without bumping into a church, but I remain an atheist, so don't blame your lapsed Catholicism on someone's hijab. That's disingenuous. And just plain simplistic.

Legislation that seeks to divide people into "us" and "them" is only geared to appeal to and appease intolerant hardliners who are under the misguided impression that their way of life is under attack. It's not. No one immigrates to another country to impose "their" way of life. They seek to eventually integrate and better themselves, but they sometimes do so at a slower rate than some of us would like. In the meantime, they, too, seek to hold on to their "values" and "heritage"; terms that the PQ seems to hold so dear.

We don't all have to look and act the same, in order to respect one another. We don't have to remove our crosses and our hijabs in order to live in a society that separates church and state. I don't care that the nurse who treats my illness wears a hijab. I care that she is competent. I don't care that the judge who wears a cross is a Christian. I care that she is fair.

I don't care that the guy behind the counter at the SAAQ wears a kippa. I care that he serves me quickly and competently and actually cracks a smile at some point to indicate that he gives a damn and hasn't given up on life all together. What's in someone's head will always be more important than what's on their head. No amount of legislation will ever change that, and simplistically equating someone's "ostentatious" symbols of religious faith with inherent prejudice is both disappointing and laughable. Check out video footage of Christian evangelist Pat Robertson to see how the absence of any visible religious signs isn't a guarantee of the absence of prejudice and hate either.

We don't have to constantly reaffirm our identity by seeking to remove others from theirs. That's an antiquated notion of secularism to me, because a truly confident society allows people to be who they are, as long as they respect the law of the land. Choosing to tolerate and accept another's religion and culture, does not equate to rejecting your own. The reality is, the more control we have over ourselves, the less we need to have control over others. It's a lesson Quebec still needs to learn.

But, ultimately this is the point that most needs to be remembered: if we ultimately choose to reject all forms of religion in public life (and while I disagree, I respect it as a decision), it would behoove us to reject them ALL. Not just some. Otherwise, you're making it clear this was never about secularism in the first place.

Quebec Religious Headwear Ban