It seems that when something happens in Canada, to paraphrase the title of the old book It Happened in Canada, it usually happens in the province of Quebec. Such is the case right now with Premier Pauline Marois’ new legislation known as the Charter of Quebec Values. If it passes, this charter, which has just been introduced in Quebec’s National Assembly, would prohibit employees of public institutions in the province from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. Such symbols would include Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs (headscarves) and burkas, Jewish kippas (skullcaps), and large crucifixes; small crosses and Star of David rings would not be forbidden. Among the venues affected by the new law would be hospitals, schools, and public daycare centres.
The Charter of Quebec Values has given rise to a huge amount of controversy not only in Quebec and Canada but around the world. While they might not agree on much else, Canada’s three major federal parties – the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives – have been unanimous in condemning Marois’ proposal. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney even showed a picture of himself on his Twitter account wearing a Sikh headscarf to show solidarity with the Sikh community, to whom the bill would deny the right to wear turbans in the workplace. In addition, thousands of people gathered in Montreal for a march to protest the Charter.
On the other hand, Marois’ legislation has its supporters. A Leger Marketing poll last month, for example, found 57% of the province’s residents to be in favour of the Charter of Quebec Values, with a higher percentage among Francophones (the majority of Quebec’s population) than Anglophones. In the Globe and Mail, David Rand, president of the group Atheist Freethinkers,* wrote a piece titled ‘Why a secular charter is good for Quebec,’ explaining that the charter will ‘establish a line of demarcation between… the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community and… the freedom of conscience of others who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives.’
I personally lack strong feelings either way on the issue, perhaps because I do not live in Quebec and because my religion (Lutheran Christianity) does not obligate me to wear any specific symbols. In general, I tend to lean against the Charter. In my view, an employee of an institution does not represent the institution as a whole. The man with a (large) Star of David around his neck who sold me my prescription medication at Toronto General Hospital, for instance, does not mean that Toronto General is a Jewish hospital. Similarly, the teacher at my daughter’s school who wears a small cross necklace – an item that would, incidentally, be permitted under the Charter of Quebec Values – does not teach at a Christian but at a public school. It might be different if the school had a crucifix on the wall or the hospital a Star of David on their front desk, but these items on an individual worker do not challenge the secularism of the institution itself. Also, although I find some of the charges of ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ hurled by the anti-Charter crowd to be overblown, it does seem somewhat suspicious that a large crucifix, a clearly religious symbol, will be kept at the National Assembly in the name of ‘tradition’ while turbans, kippas, and hijabs are banned in public buildings.
One pro-Charter argument is that if one chooses to live in a place – in this case, Quebec – one must abide by that jurisdiction’s legislation. For instance, if I decided to be a public school teacher in France, a country with a Catholic majority population but a longstanding separation of church and state, I would have to accept that I could not bring my large Hawaiian-made crucifix to class – even though when I did wear it in my younger days, it was to emulate my then-idol Madonna rather than express my religious faith. Again, my religion does not require me to wear a cross, but even in cases where a particular item, such as a turban for Sikh men, is a religious duty, the law of the land takes precedence.
A counterargument to this, of course, is that although Quebec is in some ways a separate jurisdiction from the rest of Canada, the province is receiving considerable transfer payments from other parts of the country. As a result, other Canadians – and the leaders of the country as a whole – have a legitimate basis for demanding at least some say in what the government of Quebec does. It is a bit like the question of publicly funded abortion: it is one thing to talk about the right to have an abortion; it is another to expect the taxpayers, some of whom may be vehemently opposed to the procedure, to pick up the tab for it. Therefore I do not see anything wrong with the Canadian federal government’s decision to possibly challenge the Charter in court.
As with many other contentious issues, there is hysteria on both sides of the Charter of Quebec Values debate. One letter writer to the Toronto Star, for example, states that Premier Marois’ proposal ‘reeks of the onset of fascism and Nazism that was born in Europe in the 1920s and quickly led to chaos and the holocaust in the years to follow.’ On the pro-Charter side, one commenter on a pro-secularism website stated that daycare workers who wore crucifixes were trying to convert their students to Christianity, as if wearing a cross around one’s neck were equivalent to telling young children that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (which I would undoubtedly agree with Charter supporters has no place in a publicly funded childcare centre; a private religious one is another story). As I said before, however, I do not really have much personal stake in the charter. The outcome of the proposed legislation thus remains to be seen.
*It should be noted that many of those who took part in the Montreal march against the Charter claimed to have no religious affiliation, so not all non-religious people share Rand’s opinions.