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A Discriminatory Ban on Religious Symbols for State Employees Threatens Human Rights in Quebec

The proposed charter would aim to clarify the ways in which to govern in Quebec, especially with religious minorities.

Quebec, a province of Canada that almost half of its inhabitants would like to see become an independent country, is struggling with yet another conflict over its collective identity.

A proposed Charter of Quebec Values (in French La Charte des valeurs québecoises) is being put forward by the government of Pauline Marois, the leader of the Parti Québecois, a central-left party, and not without any opposition as it would ban all civil servants from wearing any “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols.

The proposed charter, the government states, would aim to clarify the ways in which to govern in Quebec with an increasing population coming from outside Canada, especially with religious minorities, such as Muslims, Jews and Sikhs. In fact, the government is following up on its promise to “establish clearer boundaries in dealing with minorities in Quebec.” The charter, according to the State, is a move to establish clearer guidelines for dealings with “interculturalism”, especially concerning “reasonable accomodations” made for minorities.

Fierce Opposition

The debate concerning the charter, which has been raging for over a month now, starting even before the charter was revealed, has been heated, creating sharp divisions. A survey published on September 15th 2013 showed that 43% of respondents said they favor the proposed charter, while 42% were against the new rules.

Many have denounced the project, as contravening the basic human right of freedom of religion. While the turban, the kippah and the hijab would be banned, the government is being criticized by many for being hypocritical and discriminatory, as the government would continue make concessions for Catholic symbols, such as the crucifix that has hung at the front of the National assembly since the 1930s and is considered to be of cultural and historical value.

Gender Equality

According to Bernard Drainville, the Minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship the Charter is based on four values: gender equality, equality between all citizens, neutrality of the state and respect for the cultural heritage of Quebec.

Defenders of the charter argue that the hijab is the unilateral symbol of male domination and that the charter would help achieve gender equality. Others argue that hijab wearing women, for example, might lose their jobs as a result of this charter, which would consequently disadvantage them. Economic empowerment is after all one of the most powerful tools for women in achieving equality and freedom.

It is worth considering that under both Quebecois and Canadian law, gender equality is protected in no fewer than 10 and 15 articles respectively.

Possible Political Strategy

The charter is also accused of helping the government divide the electorate in order to gain votes, as there are suspicions that the minority government of Marois might hold snap elections in the near future. Some analysts argue that the Parti Québecois plays on people’s fear of losing their identity and culture to newly settled immigrants, especially in times of Islamophobia.

Minorities Within a Minority?

This fear of being integrated and losing their own culture, identity and language has been a persistent issue and as such a defining factor for Quebeckers throughout history. While the government of René Levesque has pushed to strengthen laws to establish French as the common language for everyone, the proposed charter goes far beyond this by discriminating and excluding part of the population who will not be able to be able to work as public officials, including as police, teachers and doctors. With a population of over 7 million people, Quebec has been a fierce defender of its difference and proud of its culture in a sea of English speakers.

In the past, there have been discussions surrounding what could be done, or not, to accommodate minorities. Offering halal meat in cafeterias or playing soccer with a hijab or turban have been amongst the debated concessions and highly mediatised.

So much so, that in 2007, the government commissioned sociologist Gerard Bouchard and world-renowned philosopher Charles Taylor to write a report examining the ways in which to promote multiculturalism, better integrate immigrants and efficiently protect them against discrimination.

Contrary to the premise of the charter, the commission found that “what [Quebec is] facing, instead, is the need to adapt.” What is most important is that while minorities should seek to learn French and integrate into Quebec society, Taylor argued that they should also be given the tools to do so.

The conclusion of their report found that “the responsibility for open-mindedness and desire for change lie mainly with one people: the French Canadians themselves.” Ironically, the proposed charter goes against this recommendation by forcing minorities to adopt Quebeckers’ “values.”

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