Ultra Vires


Québec’s Proposed Charter is one of Intolerance, not of Liberal Values

As debate over the proposed charter of Québec values – which would, inter alia, ban overt religious clothing – continues, let me make one thing clear: this charter’s values are not liberal values. They are the values of one particular culture (pure laine Roman Catholics) that wants to give its own religious history a place of state-recognized privilege and that refuses to make reasonable accommodations for other faiths. This is a charter of ethno-nationalism and intolerance.

Defending the charter in the Globe and Mail, Daniel Turp – the Université de Montréal law professor and former Bloc MP and Parti Québécois MNA – says the province’s proposed ban on conspicuous religious symbols is designed to “achieve the objective of organizing the state around the principle of secularism and, more specifically, to outline the principles of religious neutrality, separation of religion and state and the secular nature of its institutions”.

However, Turp’s claim that the proposed charter advances secularism and religious neutrality is both wrong-headed and disingenuous.

Secularism is both having a government free from religious interference and religion free of government interference. Yet it is unclear how public servants wearing religious clothing, exercising their own religious freedom and following what they believe is required of them by their conscience, necessarily means that faith is interfering with government affairs. If a Sikh police officer wears a turban while following all state policies and guidelines and acts fairly and non-discriminatorily towards all members of the public, then his religion is not interfering at all with the functioning of government.

On the contrary, the proposed ban actually serves to undermine secularism, insofar as the government will be forcing certain people of faith to either eschew their conscience-mandated religious requirements or to forego their state employment. A Sikh man who sincerely believes that his faith requires him to wear a turban or a Muslim woman whose conscience compels her to wear a hijab in public are hit particularly hard and in a way that Roman Catholic Québécois are not.

Yet the limitation on religious freedom is not discriminatory and is actually minimal, Turp says, because it only affects “conspicuous” religious clothing and because “discreet religious symbols would not be affected by [the] proposal”.  But individuals of faith are different and have different religious requirements, and certain articles of religious clothing cannot be interchanged with a necklace or a pendant. For a significant number of Muslim women, wearing hijab is not simply a public display of devotion to Islam that can be replaced with a more discreet symbol; it is the way to fulfill conscience-mandated requirements of modesty.

The Marois government’s pure laine goggles are tinted by the stained glass of Roman Catholicism. The sort of religiously-mandated clothing worn by many of Québec’s Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs are virtually unknown to province’s Roman Catholics. Confining religious clothing to discreet symbols such as crucifixes leaves the vast majority of Québec’s Roman Catholics unaffected, while other religious minorities face disproportionately unfair burdens and are further excluded from contemporary Québec society.

It is all the more cruel that the de facto discriminatory treatment toward certain minority religions is being perpetrated, ostensibly, for the goal of “religious neutrality”. The péquistes’ alleged desire for secularism in the public sphere is blatantly insincere, as they support privileged exemptions for Roman Catholic symbols. Most notably, the large crucifix that hangs above the Speaker’s chair in Québec’s National Assembly – first added to the legislature by the deeply Roman Catholic and xenophobic Union Nationale government – would be untouched. In the words of Bernard Drainville, the provincial minister responsible for the proposed charter, the crucifix is “part of Québec culture”.

In the proposed charter of Québec values, “secularism” means treating the Roman Catholic symbols of the province’s pure laine majority as privileged public symbols, while religious minorities are marginalized and some are forced to choose between their faith and their livelihoods.

Genuine secularism, however, is meant to protect peoples of minority faiths and create a civic space that is open to all citizens.

It is repugnant that pure laine Québecois – a minority within Canada who have historically faced intolerance and exclusion from the country’s English-speaking Protestants – should seek to marginalize minority groups within Québec who are fearful of losing their own culture. Francophone Québécois should reject the proposed charter and Pauline Marois’ vision of an intolerant Québec and stand up for genuinely liberal values.

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