Quebec’s charter a course for disaster

By Kalista Sherbaniuk

Quebec’s newly proposed Charter of Quebec Values has generated a heated debate. Quebec’s Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship minister Bernard Drainville has proposed legislation that will prohibit the wearing of religious symbols while working in the public sector. The ban is not universal for all religions, as crucifixes at the provincial legislature will remain in place.

In addition to opposing Canadian law, the charter violates long-held values of multiculturalism and equality. Furthermore, immigrants will likely be deterred by such legislation. Instead of discouraging immigrants, who are necessary for the growth of Canada’s economy, Quebec politicians should implement legislation to properly support newcomers.

The charter’s proposal is accompanied by an image that can be found on the Quebec government’s webpage. The image informs the public about what will be appropriate religious garb in the public sector. Inconspicuous displays of religion, such as a ring with the Star of David, Muslim crescent earrings or small crosses will be allowed. The subjective category of “overt and conspicuous” religious articles includes turbans, hijabs and large crosses. The charter creates a grey area by allowing some religious symbols at the exclusion of others.

Drainville says that the charter will be implemented with what he refers to as “good old common sense.” What constitutes “good old common sense” is anyone’s best guess — the legal uncertainty of these statements leaves room for controversial interpretations of proper dress code.

Crucifixes will remain stationed at the provincial legislature buildings, should the charter pass. This demonstrates an obvious bias towards Christianity. Christianity will be normalized at the expense of religions perceived as deviations from the dominant ideology of Quebec’s elite. As Drainville said to The Huffington Post, “The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage.” Christianity is defined as heritage in Drainville’s eyes whereas other symbols of faith are perceived as religious and therefore contentious to his version of neutrality.
While the contributions of French Canadians to our history should be respected, they should not be prioritized over the heritage of present-day citizens. Just because someone’s ancestors came from France or Britain does not make their citizenship any more valid than a person without such ancestry. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was established for this very reason — to protect individuals within Canada’s multicultural society.

The Quebec charter steps out of line with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebec’s provincial legislation must comply with federal law. Sean Fine of the Globe and Mail obtained the opinions of nine distinguished public sector lawyers from across Canada. Only one of the lawyers, Daniel Turpe, of the Université de Montrèal said that Quebec’s new charter would be constitutional. The other eight lawyers, including two from Quebec, said the proposed charter would conflict with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bases of their arguments ranged from evident religious or possible gender discrimination written into the subtext of the charter.

One of the lawyers, Sylvain Lussier, points out that though proponents of the charter claim equality, gender discrimination is a potential outcome. The Jewish kippah, a religious hat worn by men would be prohibited, while the wigs worn by Jewish women, known as sheitels, would be permitted.

However, other religious symbols such as beards are permitted. The example of beards is interesting because beards are viewed as normal from a Euro-Canadian standpoint which is perhaps why they are permissible though they are religiously significant for other faiths, such as Sikhs. Only the aspects of non-Christian religions that do not obviously differ from what the dominant ideology considers normal are tolerated by the implications of the charter. This does not promote multiculturalism.

France has unveiled similar legislation called the Charter of Secularity which has led the country into “thickets of controversy,” writes Don Murray for CBC News in his article “Quebec charter of values plan could take a few pages from France.” The Charter of Secularity bans religious symbols in schools. Murray challenges the Quebec premier, Pauline Marois’s argument that the French system is better than Britain’s multicultural legislation, by citing evidence that immigrants to the U.K. have gained a sense of belonging through their multicultural approach. For example, according to a citizenship survey in 2007, over 83 per cent of black, Indian and Pakistani immigrants to England and Wales felt “fairly or very strongly” that they “belong to Britain.”
In France, statistics show alarming intolerance. Murray’s article points out that 80 per cent of French people polled feel that their government should ban more religious wear and two-thirds think that Muslims are not integrating into French society well.

The charter is a crackdown on immigration. Foreigners who plan to move to Canada and want to openly practice their religion will face tough decisions and spiritual dilemmas should this charter come to pass. Immigration accounted for 54,000 of the 76,000 gained residents in Quebec in 2010 according to the Montreal Gazette. With the approaching retirement of the baby boomers, immigration will become important for maintaining the workforce.

Quebec’s leaders are using the charter as a distraction from a slumping economy over $250 billion in debt. $2 million is being spent on a public relations campaign for the charter. Add that sum to the potential cost of legal fees fighting human rights cases, students and professionals who wish to wear their religious symbols moving away from Quebec and the charter only contributes to the economic problems. Quebec’s leaders should focus on their economy rather than a discriminatory piece of legislation. Statistics Canada cites Quebec as the province in which immigrants are least employable.

Quebec’s politicians should reconfigure social services for immigrants to ensure that they obtain employment to ease the strain on welfare programs and enrich the economy. Canada should not be a country that condones discrimination. Multiculturalism is a mandate of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At times, upholding this ideal can cause issues but immigration is necessary to keep Canada running. In addition to human rights concerns, the proposed Charter of Quebec Values would deter immigrants who, if properly supported, could improve Canada’s prosperity.

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