Recently in Canada’s Quebec province, debates, disputes, a public hearing and public protests have been taking place with regards to the kinds of religious symbols civil servants should be allowed to wear. This is due to the Charter of Quebec Values, a controversial policy initiative unveiled on September 10, 2013, by the Parti Québécois.
The Charter would make it illegal for any civil servant to wear “ostentatious” religious symbols. A detailed chart accompanied the proposed bill: small religious jewelry would be permitted, while more visible religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs, or large crucifixes would be illegal. The government of Quebec supports the proposal claiming that the Charter represents the province’s best interests while promoting the neutrality of the state.
Identity is a particularly charged issue in Quebec. This province has the distinction of being the sole province in Canada where French is the only official language as well as the language spoken by a majority of its constituents. Francophones have historically faced persecution and oppression by anglophones and by anglophone establishments. Protecting the French language as well as the “French way of life” is a galvanizing aspect of many political debates concerning Quebec.
However, the Charter is an attempt to regulate cultural diversity. While protecting francophone culture and way of life is a laudable goal, the manner in which this project is being secured should concern us.
Can one claim to be protecting Quebec's unique identity without also protecting its religious minorities? What it means to be a Québécois nowadays includes being Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Buddhist. To argue that the Parti Québécois wants to protect Quebec’s majority, francophone culture, implies that the cultures of minority religions, whose members may have spent their entire lives in Quebec, are not valued. This is an exclusionary and deeply problematic stance.
Another justification for the ban on obvious religious symbols is that civil servants, when at work, represent the government, and the government must be neutral in terms of religion. Anyone who represents the state cannot be perceived as promoting a religion. Otherwise, the neutrality of the state is jeopardized. However, hiring a woman who wears a hijab does not mean that the state is officially sanctioning Islam. Rather, the state is acknowledging that a Muslim, like any other citizen, is able to perform fully her duties as a teacher, bureaucrat, nurse, or police officer. To force someone to choose between his or her religious convictions and employment is unfair.
The policy initiative becomes even more problematic when we consider its use of the term "neutral" given that the bill does not affect everyone equally. How religion is expressed, understood, and practiced varies from community to community, or even on an individual level. As such, legislating that a Christian cannot wear an oversized cross has a different impact than legislating that a Sikh cannot wear his turban. A Christian may elect to leave the cross at home. A Sikh does not have this option—wearing a turban is an important part of Sikh culture and is required for all baptized Sikh men.
The Charter of Quebec Values is not unanimously supported in Quebec. Polls vary on how much public support there is for this bill. The most frequently cited poll, the Leger Marketing survey by the QMI agency, puts support for this bill at forty-eight per cent, and the Parti Québécois cites approval ratings that place them in the lead if an election was called today.
While securing majority support for the bill has never been a focal point of the policy’s defenders, poll numbers indicate that the Charter, named “Quebec Values,” is contested. These values have not succeeded in cementing, for all Québécois, a single vision for society. Rather it is a divisive policy for a province seeking to maintain its distinctive voice as it faces various challenges.
Given the diverse, complex, and evolving societies of today, efforts at social construction will have to be more collaborative, more negotiated, and more inclusive of minority religious groups. The government of a pluralistic society has a responsibility to protect minorities from majorities rather than to propagate practices of exclusion.
In order to maintain Quebec’s distinctness one does not have to make difference illegal. An alternative is to develop a novel and original Quebec-centred manner of bringing different religions, cultures, and ethnicities into the same space.
References and Further Reading:
Kaufman, Dave. “Quebec separatists have risen into majority territory: poll.” The Toronto Sun, January 20, 2014.
Mulholland, Angela. “Quebec's values charter: What is it and what will it change?” CTV News, September 17, 2013.
Peritz, Ingrig. “Quebec's Charter of Values debate a hearing in name only.” The Globe and Mail, January 18, 2014.
Sherazi, Aisha. “Quebec Charter of Values Doesn't Value Everyone Equally.” Ottawa Citizen, September 16, 2013.
Woods, Allan. “Poll shows Quebecers split evenly on Values Charter.” The Toronto Star, September 17, 2013.
“Quebec values charter protest hits Montreal streets.” CBC News, September 14, 2013.
Photo Credit: Jiri Flagel / Shutterstock
Author, Jonathan Napier, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. He is researching the manner in which religions are active in the public sphere in Canada.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.