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In May 2013, Mr. Bernard Drainville, the Minister of Democratic Institutions and Citizenship in the minority Parti Québécois (PQ) provincial government of Quebec, Canada announced that the Charte de la laïcité, or Charter of Secularism, would become a Charte des valeurs québécoises, or The Québéc Charter of Values. In Bill 60, the charter would seek to embody values of state secularism, religious neutrality of the state, and equality between men and women, by banning the display of “ostentatious” religious symbols by employees in the public sector.
The announcement came at a time when tensions over co-existence in this Canadian province is high, particularly with regard to the Muslim population as seven out of 10 people here say Muslims do not share their values. An October 2013 study suggests that one in four Quebec Muslims were target of a criminal or hateful act. A recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll finds that public attitudes toward Islam have deteriorated markedly across the country . While Islamophobia existed prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack, that tragic incident is still fuelling an anti-Islamic sentiment here in Canada overlooking the fact that: a) terrorists do not represent Islam and b) many innocent Muslims too died in that cowardly act.
It is noteworthy to mention that, in the context of the province of Quebec, the 2008 report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on accommodation of religious and cultural beliefs was framed after holding a series of public hearings across the province in 2007. That report recommends: “accommodation shouldn’t be overly legislated“. It clearly articulates that there is no ‘real crisis’ in Quebec in terms of the co-existence among people with different beliefs. The crisis is about a “crisis of perception” of the Francophone living in Quebec toward incoming immigrants, especially Muslims.
The proposed charter mainly targets Muslim women and the way they dress. Currently, Muslim women make up about 1 per cent of Quebec’s population, out of which even fewer covers their head with Hijab. These women declare a variety of reasons for coverings their heads i.e upholding identity, personal interpretation of Islam or expressing modesty.
However, some vocal Quebec feminists discounted the notion that Muslim women may have any agency in the matter of head coverings. This resulted in an appropriation of feminist terms– -giving rise to a new patriarchy– through these feminists, where they showed no respect for the actual “choice or voice” of the individual Muslim women who these feminists purportedly seek to liberate.
Where should one draw the line between a woman who is forced to wear a certain type of religious headgear, and those who choose to wear it? The conversation in Quebec follows a limited binary narrative where Muslim women who deign to wear a hijab are seen as victims of male patriarchy.
Further, some mainstream privileged feminists of the likes of French media personality Janette Bertrand (disciples of whom refer to themselves as ‘Janettes’) and even super star Celine Dion have waded into the issue by endorsing the ‘Charter of Values’ ignoring that one of the major aims of this charter is to erect unnecessary barriers around the educational and career choices of headscarf wearing Muslim women.
Yet, the Quebec Minister, Mr Bernard Drainville, who is in charge of overseeing the public hearings around the charter, recently banned the use of word racist, declaring he will not accept any charges of racism during the proceedings. This is a demonstration of a wilful ignorance and endorsement to intolerance by the establishment.
An Election Strategy?
The Charter has evolved in the backdrop of rising Quebec budget deficits and a public finance management crisis. The PQ is likely to use this bill as an election tool to generate support from Francophone electorates who are generally wary about incoming Muslim immigrants. This group would determine the outcome of next Quebec election as they (Francophone) represent over 75% of Quebec’s total population. PQ’s strategy has been immensely successful as recent poling numbers from January 2014 indicates that PQ is leading in terms of voters’ choice. This charter has a nationalistic agenda too.
The Quebec question requires careful stewardship of federal-provincial relationship in each Canadian political generation, given the history of separatist activism pursued by the PQ in the province. This party has promised its constituents’ public hearings across the province, and a white paper on the political future of Quebec in the Canadian Federation. The PQ believes these hearings will generate popular momentum for a third referendum on sovereignty of Quebec. The way this secularism charter debate was harnessed in past months, dismissing a possible PQ referendum goal in future would be a reflection of short-sightedness.
“The Québéc Charter of Values” seeks to institutionalize state sponsored discrimination. It has an inherent element to pose negative impact on employment opportunity for Muslim women. This is a massive civil rights violation, cloaked in seemingly benign Quebec nationalist sentiments. Creating a new law with an anti-religious definition of secularism is contrary to the rights of individuals and minorities facing existing discrimination and possible exclusion in future. Secularism can look at ways to promote public square neutrality and equality of treatment between people of faith and non- faith. This approach can be promoted through neutrality of public institutions administering public services but not through legislating dress code of individual public sector workers. The Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is already in place to promote a pluralistic democracy, freedom of religion and conscience. This document reaffirms quintessential Quebec values of respect for ‘difference, intercultural convergence, and solidarity’ in contrast to proposed discrimination and oppression in proposed Quebec charter of values.
*Zerin Nusrat is a freelance writer from Quebec, Canada, who holds an interest in public policy issues.