Montrealers are shaking their heads about the priorities of this Parti Québécois government, as expressed in its obsession about defining and imposing a so-called Charter of Quebec Values.
As these lines are being written, details of the charter are not yet known, but the essentials are clear: the Pauline Marois regime wants to ban public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols, but will leave the crucifix in place in the National Assembly.
The backstory is equally clear: The PQ has failed to garner political support for a tougher language law, which is stalled in the National Assembly. Facing a reinvigorated Liberal Party with new leader Philippe Couillard, Marois is making a desperate attempt to manufacture a crisis and profit from it politically.
The government is wrong to adopt a rigid approach dictating rules that affect an individual’s profound
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beliefs. This subject has evoked almost no controversy in the past few years, since several sensationalized stories sparked the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation. In a city that hasn’t had a demonstration its citizens don’t love, there has yet to be one demanding that a Muslim female child-care worker remove her hijab.
This charter is aimed squarely at the growing population of Muslims in Quebec, estimated at almost 245,000. As conditions worsen in the Middle East, their number can be expected to grow. Many from North Africa, Syria and Lebanon get points because they speak French. Many are highly trained professionals, or have the much-needed skills and energy immigrants bring to a new land. Quebec needs immigrants and should continue to welcome them.
While some Muslim immigrants are content with a secular lifestyle, others believe the hijab is prescribed as modest dress. There has yet to be a public case where a hijab-wearing teacher has been found to be proselytizing to her students in a public school or daycare.
The same rules that would apply to a Christian or Hindu teacher preventing preaching religion in class would apply to her. The idea that someone who wears a religious symbol is more likely to push his or her religious views on unsuspecting students is paranoia.
The best way for a Muslim woman to feel comfortable in society as she adapts to North American ways and customs is for her to work in a secular environment. Should she be forced to work in a private Muslim school, ghettoized as soon as she arrives in our open society? This is a terrible idea that defeats the goal of successful integration.
Should a Jewish or Islamic doctor be forced to work in specific hospitals such as the Jewish General or a future “Muslim General”—the only hospitals where, according to some versions of the charter, they would be allowed to wear religious headgear? It recalls the strike by interns at Notre Dame Hospital in 1934 after they hired a Jewish physician, Sam Rabinovitch. Is this the direction in which the PQ wants to drag Quebec?
Despite the political risks—there is a backlash against reasonable accommodation of religious practices other than Roman Catholics—Liberal leader Phillipe Couillard made it clear he would oppose a law to ban religious gear.
But in line with a Liberal bill that was never passed, he would draw the line at a teacher covering her face “because of the message it would have sent about the relationship between men and women when equality is an important part of our fundamental values.”
Many left-leaning sovereignists have called on the government to back off. They include municipal politician Louise Harel, who says the Quebec government should not dictate values. Québec Solidaire co-leader Françoise David blasted any proposal that excludes women even as it claims to be inclusive.
The Fédération autonome de l’enseignement du Québec, representing 32,000 public-school teachers, demanded the PQ scrap plans to impose a secular dress code. They urged the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly, which both PQ and Liberal governments maintain should stay because of its historical relevance.
Québec Solidaire and the teachers’ federation demand that any move to enforce French-style laicité should start by cutting state support for religious schools.
Do we really want a witchhunt where we start measuring the size of a religious pendant or chase away a qualified employee because of a head covering that has religious significance?
This is not the open and welcoming Quebec that most of us cherish.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Tolerance begins with education
I recently boarded an elevator on the fourth floor of the grande bibliotheque de Montréal .
A black woman dressed in Muslim clothing, with her face totally unveiled, also entered the elevator, pushing a baby stroller with a little girl in it.
They spoke to each other in English as we descended floor by floor to the ground level.
When the elevator doors opened, she exited and an older Caucasian man told her curtly, “On est au Canada ici.”
Without missing a beat, she responded in perfect French and in an unruffled tone, “Et au Québec aussi.”
Herein lies a pre-Charter of Quebec Values tale: While legislation may well address social inequalities of Quebec society, the answer also lies in education—teaching values to children, parents, and grandparents because learning constitutes a life-long endeavour.
Professor Norman Cornett, Montreal