Debating Multiculturalism: Quebec’s Charter of Values – Locating It’s Conception

This is the second part of our Multiculturalism Debate.  To see the first part click here Do you live in Quebec or any other parts of Canada? Do you want to participate in this debate? Please send us your view/opinion at 

Daniel Lavoie*

There has recently been a lot of attention surrounding Quebec’s proposed ‘Charter of Values’, so what is really going with this proposed move to separate religion from the state? 

When my friend Mubashar approached me to write on this issue, I was not sure from what point of view I would take. I do have some personal feelings towards this project, but I feel before I explain my position, it is necessary to explain Quebec’s history and culture to understand the present situation, and where this project is coming from.

Proposed religious symbols to be banned - Google Images

Proposed religious symbols to be banned – Google Images

Locating the Charter’s Origin

First of all, Quebec has always been regarded as a different province from the rest of Canada. We have a different language, culture, history, code of law and religion. Before the 1950s, the Catholic Church held a very strong position within Quebec society. Education and health institutions were directed by the catholics, and the line between political and religious power was fuzzy. In 1936, Prime Minister Maurice Duplessis went as far as installing in the Quebec parliament a crucifix to symbolize the union  between religion and politics.

There is an expression we have in Quebec that illustrates the values of the Catholic Church towards the French during this period: ‘né pour un petit pain’. Witch literally means: ‘born for a small bread or born for a small destiny’. The Catholic Church were intent on French Canadians doing the follow:

1)   Labouring the land 2) Giving birth to many children 3) Not opening businesses 4) Not attending university

… not making money because it was considered ‘evil’

So what happened? The English minority in Montreal ended up controlling all the major businesses and industries in Quebec. Before the 1950’s it was almost impossible to find a foreman, or a manager that was French. It becomes accepted that the French in Quebec were ‘born for a small bread’. In Quebec history, this period is known as the Grande Noirceur – Great Darkness.

Meanwhile, provinces within the rest of Canada were modernizing there political and social institutions, while Quebec was left behind. By the 1950’s Quebec was vastly behind the rest of the Canada. A decade later this lead to The Révolution Tranquille – The Quiet Revolution.

The Quiet Revolution, while it denotes a gentle revolt, without public executions or mass violence, this period marked significant changes occurring within Quebec society.  During this period the Catholic Church lost almost all of its power. People started to express resentment against the religious institution. In less than 10 years, people of Quebec had turned against the church and many have not returned since that day. Add to that the many stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the divorce between Quebec and Catholicism is final. This prologue is important because the Quiet Revolution and the resulting secularization is the basic foundation of the modern Quebec society. This brief historical recount is fundamental in understanding the proposed charter. Many consider the charter as the final step in secularization.

Proposed Aspects of the Charter

Now let’s see in details the project of charter. First of all, 95% of the charter is not about religious symbols. The charter is more about putting down on the paper the separation of religion and the state. While the Quiet Revolution marked this shift, it was never put down on paper. The second important aspect is the accomodements raisonnables – the reasonable accommodations.

But what exactly are those reasonable accommodations? It is a concept that was originally put in place for those suffering from disabilities – access ramps, appropriate signals etc; the term reasonable means the accommodation must not be too ‘unreasonable’. Over the last decade, as the origin of immigrants into Quebec became more and more diverse, this concept started to be used in reference to people and with new religious demands. This is where the debate started…

The origin of this debate, ‘reasonable accommodations’ (and the charter in general), can be traced back to Montreal in 2006. A group of hasidic Jews asked the owner of a gym to tint the gym windows because there were women exercising inside, and were not dressed appropriately according to their religious beliefs. This may seem minor, but in Quebec, equality between women and men is regarded as the number one value in society.

From here everything moved very quickly. Some people reported stories of men refusing to be seen by female doctors, people taking time off work to pray, children being allowed to wear religious knives at school, and the list goes on. The mass media jumped on board, and suddenly people who had never seen a Muslim or a Jew before, felt that their ‘demands’ were not ‘reasonable’.

The liberal party responded to this by ordering a commission – should we clearly define the reasonable accommodations? The Bouchard-Taylor commission was born.

What Came from the Commission?

The reasonable accommodations should not overcome the equality of men and women, or any other basic rights. Also, the state should clearly reaffirm his neutrality towards all religion. By so, the commission recommended that people in position of authority, like policemen and judges for example, should not wear religious signs while working. Like many political topics, the Liberal Party did not follow up on the commission’s recommendations, and the media finally stopped talking about it.

The Charter is back on the Agenda

In 2012 the PQ party replaced the liberals in power, and launched their own project of the charter of values, inspired in part by the commission and Bouchard-Taylor. Although, it was taken further by proposing the banning of religious symbols for all state employees.

Where I Stand…

Well, like the vast majority of people in Quebec, I agree with 90-95% of the charter project. It is very important to have some common base around the reasonable accommodations and reaffirm the secularization of our society. Now we are dealing with it on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes one religious demand is one particular situation is accepted, on other times it is not. This results in confusing situations where some part of the population feel their basic values may not be respected at all times. By clearly defining the frame of reasonable accommodations, and our basic values, we can avoid these situations. Those values include equality between men and women, and the separation of the state and religion. 

But what  about the religious symbols? Do I think they should be banned? Do I also agree the ban should only be for those in a position of authority like the Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended? Or for all state employees?

Well, my opinion is that I would be favourable to those who represent the state as neutral in their appearance. If it is not authorized for state employees to wear political or social signs which represent their values, it should be the same for religious symbols. I have a deep belief that religion is part of the private domain of a persons personal values.

That said, do I think that we need to ban all religious signs from state employees? No. Do I think that this is actually possible to achieve such a ban?

No. Finally, do I think this part of the charter was even needed at all? Probably not. So why support it? How could I support an idea or a project but be against the ways to do it.

Well, I will try to explain myself by making the following comparison. I think, and I wish, that when my province stops consuming oil and producing gas emissions. However, if tomorrow PQ would propose a project that would ban oil from Quebec I would definitely be against it because it would not be logical at this time. Exactly like it is not logical to ban all religious signs from all state employees starting tomorrow. I believe people in Quebec don’t really care about religious symbols. They never cared until the Bouchard-Taylor commission. What they care about is to make sure that religious accommodations do not go too far, or overcome our basic values, especially the equality between men and women.

*Daniel is a part time student in geography at the University of Quebec in Montreal and a young entrepreneur. He was born and raised in a city near Montreal.

1 reply »

  1. Good to get a native Quebecois voice on the issue. I agree with some parts of this argument, and appreciate the authors efforts to provide a review of the “francophone” Quebecois psyche. As a reader, I would like to see Daniel Lavoie engage in a conversation over some of the contentious points though:

    – Starting with what it means to be ‘native’. Where do the various Quebec First Nations communities stand in this debate(although I detest the term, I will use the word ‘Aboriginal community’ here to specify the people who existed here on the land before the francophones and anglophones fought each other over these aboriginal lands);
    the Quebecois Anglophone community; and a cross-section of the immigrant Quebecois community

    Is one community more Quebecois, and thus ‘more native’ than another? Does majority sentiment override Human rights violations by said majority community?

    – The “Quiet Revolution lens” and subsequent redressing of francophone socio-economic inequality contrasted to other ethnic minorities in the province.

    Have we reached a point where this continued re-dress is devolving into francophone economic and social mobility outpacing those of other communities through systemic discrimination in hiring practices? Even when new immigrants learn French and are highly credentialized in a certain profession, the Charter of Values indicates they can still not be ‘legally’ hired, and even get fired, if they do not have the ‘Right look for a job” deemed appropriate by the Francophone Establishment.

    – If said charter of values passes into law, will this not entrench ‘ghettoization’ of existing immigrant pockets of poverty in Quebec though educational, employment and other social barriers in the province?

    – The problematic nature of how the Bouchard-Taylor commission conducted/implemented it’s public hearings in 2007; and some of the highly contested recommendations of the commission in the public sphere in 2008. The commission’s recommendation were so problematic that the liberal government of the day was all to happy to not implement it’s findings.

    – Can the author please consider if the charter adequately differentiates between international understanding of “fundamental rights”, “civil rights”, and “freedom of conscience” as spelled out in a number of international and domestic Human Rights documents?

    Why is the existing Quebec charter of Rights and Freedoms not enough to protect Quebec’s ‘distinct society’?


    These were just some of the thoughts that came to mind while reading this piece.

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