Some thoughts about the Charter of Quebec Values

I am a professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Heritage College, which is a regional anglophone college in Quebec’s unique CEGEP system of higher education. As such, I am also a provincial public servant, and the proposed Charter of Quebec Values will affect me personally, as well as all of my colleagues and students. I am also the author of twelve philosophical and/or pagan books, and (to my knowledge) I am the only openly-pagan philosophy professor in the world.

There are a number of things about the proposed Charter of Quebec Values which are interesting, but some of those things are at the same time troubling. Among both my colleagues at work, and also my friends in the Quebec pagan community, there are mixed views: some support it and some are against it, either in whole or in part.

Most everyone I know is in favour of the separation of church and state in Canada. For that matter, so am I. Although Canada does not have such a separation guaranteed in our constitution (we have, instead, a history of political traditions and a mountain of judicial precedent), Quebec has its own charter of human rights and freedoms, its own civil code (no other Canadian province has one), and other similar legal statements defining Quebecois social values, which provide that separation quite robustly. The three most important Quebec values embodied in those statements are the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state, and the primacy of the French language.

In the 60’s and 70’s, Quebec underwent a radical secularization process in which major social services which had previously been provided by the (unelected, unaccountable) Catholic Church, services like housing and education and health care, were taken over by the provincial government. This process is now known as the Quiet Revolution, and no other Canadian province or American State has done anything similar.

In that sense, Premier Pauline Marois’ Charter of Quebec Values doesn’t do much that hasn’t already been done. However: Marois’ proposed Charter will require that public servants (like me) do not display religious symbols openly while functioning as public servants. It may also require that members of the public cannot wear prominent religious symbols while receiving provincial government services. Apparently, we can wear small symbols, and there’s a specific list of which ones we can wear, and how small they have to be.

Were that all, it would be fine by me. But it’s not all. For instance, for a charter that supposedly is about secularism, there’s rather a lot of exceptions for “traditional Quebec values”. And most of those exceptions, suspiciously, involve Roman Catholic symbols, including the huge Catholic crucifix which hangs in the Quebec national assembly chamber, and the giant illuminated cross that stands at the summit of the mountain in Montreal. This strikes me as a little bit hypocritical.

It’s the exceptions that we should think about here. They indicate what the proposed Charter is possibly really about. Given that the majority of the exceptions are about Catholic symbols, I suspect that the Charter is a disguised attempt to protect Roman Catholic symbolism and culture in Quebec.

I suspect it’s also a disguised attempt to attack Muslim women. For although Marois said that the Charter would unite Quebecers, so far the real practical result has been to divide them, between those who are happy with Quebec’s mostly-healthy multiculturalism as it is, and those who would rather see a more homogeneous, secular, but also informally Catholic Quebec. Since the Charter was floated by the Parti Quebecois, Burka-wearing Muslim women have had to endure more harassment and violence in public places than ever before.

The Charter is being informally proposed as a way to liberate Muslim women from the oppression of the burka. But I’m not fully convinced that all Muslim women who wear it are oppressed. One needs to ask: if a Muslim woman chooses to wear the burka, is she really being oppressed by her husband or father? Maybe not. But almost no one is taking much time to ask these women why they wear the burka, or why they don’t, as the case may be. Indeed, I suspect that there is a lot of latent xenophobia quietly presupposed in the Charter. Perhaps the Charter’s real purpose is to liberate white, secular and/or informally Catholic Quebecers from having a Burka-wearing Muslim woman as their next-door neighbours.

Personally, I’d rather see a complete ban on religious symbols, with no exceptions. But even a complete ban on wearing such symbols has its problems. Many of my colleagues are religious, but very few of them wear their religious symbols openly anyway. I’m religious: I’m a spiritually druidic humanist. But I keep my triskele under my shirt. Because my religion is nobody’s business but my own. So, the charter will stop us from doing something that we’re not doing anyway – a clear absurdity.

But while that’s true of most of my colleagues, it isn’t true of all of them. Some of my colleagues do wear highly visible religious symbols: they have to, because their religion requires it. Think of it this way: no one would seriously demand that a Catholic man should be Catholic at home and a secular atheist while at work. But Catholics don’t have to wear their crosses openly if they don’t want to. He can be a Catholic man at all times, and no one else need be the wiser. But the same cannot be said of those whose religion requires them to wear a turban, or a Jewish skullcap, or a Bindi mark on their brows. To such people, to give up those symbols is the same as to give up part of their religion. I worry that some of my very talented and well-liked colleagues might lose their jobs if they refuse to abstain from their symbols. This would be a great loss to my college; it would also be a great injustice, as these people might lose their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs.

But all this might be smoke in the wind anyway. Canada has a national Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our Constitution, and which theoretically trumps any provincial legislation. Our constitution guarantees to every Canadian the freedom of religion. If Marois’ proposed Charter of Quebec Values becomes law, it will certainly conflict with our national Charter. Federal politicians have already indicated their willingness to fight the charter in the courts. Moreover, Marois has only a minority government right now, which means that if enough opposition parties reject the proposed charter, it won’t fly anyway.

And finally, I’m certainly convinced that Quebec has more serious problems to deal with, such as its ancient infrastructure. There are bridges collapsing all around Montreal; there are highways with potholes big enough to swallow whole cars. I suspect that the Charter is intended to disguise the fact that the PQ has no freaking clue about how to handle real problems that really matter – problems like unemployment, homelessness, underfunded schools and hospitals, Aboriginal land claims, decaying infrastructure, and the like. They only understand the politics of identity. They don’t understand anything else.

When you vote PQ, you may or may not get the socialist paradise they promise, but you always get the identity politics.

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