The struggle between secularism and accommodation continues in Quebec. Successful Societies Advisory Committee Member Gérard Bouchard examines the issue.
The Quebec Charter of Values being proposed by the Parti Québécois is not needed to preserve Quebec culture or values, and in fact has already created major damage to Quebec society that won’t be easily repaired.
The proposed charter announced on September 10 has three components: first, an official definition of the principles of a secular regime for Quebec (for example, separation of state and religion); second, changes to the practices of religious and cultural accommodation; and third, a requirement that the state employees can no longer wear religious signs at work.
The first component enjoys a wide consensus and attracts little attention in the public debate. The second component is more controversial and is also the locus of a deep misunderstanding in the population. There is a widespread belief that accommodation can conflict with the Quebec Charter, particularly regarding women’s rights. Although this is not the case, this kind of discourse has fed a deeply negative view of accommodations.
The last component is stirring a heated debate in the province of Quebec, and puts Quebec society in danger of losing its ability to operate as a cohesive, progressive state with regard to the management of diversity.
The Quebec government argues that for the state to be secular, its employees should not wear religious signs at work. Employees are said to be representatives (or ambassadors) of the secular state, and, therefore, the wearing of religious signs is seen as form of proselytism that is not compatible with the rule of professional impartiality.
According to its opponents, this requirement would violate a fundamental right without a legitimate motive. They make the case that the institutional separation of state and religion does not mean that employees should be prohibited from wearing religious signs. The state as an institution is “secular”, not the individuals. The opponents also say that the charter would discriminate against certain groups of citizens, especially Muslim women, forcing some of them to abandon their jobs. The irony is that one major trumpeted goal of the project is to secure better protection for the value of gender equality.
The debate is complicated by a number of factors. One, the supporters are comprised of an array of unexpected bedfellows. About half of the supporters belong to a core of those nostalgic for the old “French Canadian” Quebec. The remaining supporters include: a number of feminists, concerned with the potential for patriarchal bias of religion; aging baby-boomers who fought for the Quiet Revolution and for the termination of the abusive Catholic clergy power in Quebec society; and individuals who take their cue from France. This mixture makes it all the more difficult to isolate the central issues of the project.
Political dimensions are also obscuring the issues. For instance, as a minority government, it is unlikely that the Parti Québécois will be able to rally a majority in the National Assembly, since all other parties have rejected the project. So, one has to ask what is motivating the government. The present direction of the party seems out of line with a party that was known to combine a vigorous form of nationalism with a true liberal and progressive philosophy (a not so frequent occurrence in the history of democracy).
Opposing the debate are people who hold a less extreme view of secularism and accord a higher priority to the protection of human rights. For one, I have come out strongly to oppose this component of the project. Here are a few of my criticisms:
There is an obvious imbalance between the benefits of the charter versus the damage that would be inflicted on some citizens.
It is illogical to stress that all public employees are representative of the state (for instance, consider service employees like the maintenance crew of Hydro-Québec or chefs in our hospital cafeterias).
There is no empirical evidence that shows the wearing of religious signs violates the rule of impartiality and prevents a worker from accomplishing his or her duty satisfactorily.
The ban would create two classes of citizens and deprive some from accessing high quality jobs (a not insignificant half a million public jobs).
Finally, regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, major damages won’t be easily repaired. One of them is the demonization of religious signs, particularly the hidjab. Another is the fracture that has been created in Québec society between the Francophone majority and the minorities.
Just five years ago, Charles Taylor and I co-chaired a commission on cultural accommodation in Quebec. In our report we concluded that interculturalism has been evolving as a unique strength of Quebec society. We pointed a way forward where ethnocultural diversity exists comfortably alongside a French-speaking core.
We also pointed out that, preferably, integration and differences must be negotiated between citizens, rather than through state or court intervention. Rather than focus on their differences, the people of Quebec now need to move forward to build a common identity, with common values and one inclusive collective memory. Quebec cannot afford to be imbued with fear and mistrust, but requires instead a citizen culture, where all Quebecers are able to invest and thrive.
While conducting hearings on accommodation we heard an appeal for tolerance from many Quebecers, including immigrants. One of them was Karina Chami, who said: “Let us avoid bequeathing to our children a Quebec that is too narrow for them.”
Gérard Bouchard is on the Advisory Committee of CIFAR’s program in Successful Societies and a Professor in the Department of Human Sciences at the University of Québec at Chicoutimi
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