Public hearings have commenced in the province of Quebec, Canada, concerning a proposed charter of values that would ban employees in the public sector from displaying ‘overt and conspicuous’ or ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols such as kippas, hijabs, turbans, and large crucifixes at work.

The charter was formally introduced by the Parti Québécois, the province’s current governing party, in September of 2013 and the official legislation, named Bill 60, was soon tabled in the province’s National Assembly. Demonstrations both for and against the proposed charter have been held throughout the province, and a vote on the proposed charter is expected to be held in the spring of 2014.

In addition to the restrictions on religious garb for employees, if the bill is passed no Quebecer will be permitted to cover their face when seeking and receiving government services or to refuse service by a female public employee.

Since its proposal, the charter has generated intense debates between religious, civil, and political groups about Quebec’s national identity, gender equality and religious accommodation, and the role of the state in protecting individual freedoms while preserving common values. The charter has also sparked debates about whether or not multiculturalism policies remain the best method for managing growing cultural diversity in North American and European societies.

An illustration from the Quebec Charter of Values website shows which religious symbols would be banned for public sector employees.

Charter seeks to replace multiculturalism with religious neutrality

Supporters of the charter argue that the new rules will serve to unite Quebec and complete a transformation of the province’s national identity that has been in the works since the 1960s, when its public institutions were first secularized. Moreover, the goal of the proposed charter has been compared to Bill 101, the province’s Charter of the French Language, which has been argued to increase unity and social cohesion by protecting the French language in Quebec.
The Parti Québécois (PQ) has more recently maintained that the charter of values will defend the province against gender discrimination and what it describes as encroaching fundamentalism. This aligns with provincial Premier Pauline Marois’ statement in the fall that the charter will affirm, once and for all, the equality between men and women, and that it will reflect not only “universal” values, but Quebec values as well.

The province’s human rights commission, however, has significant concerns about what Bill 60 will mean for Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which holds primacy over all provincial legislation and is superseded only by the Constitution of Canada (including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

“Bill 60 incorrectly interprets the concept of state secularism and religious neutrality that is already defined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Jacques Frémont, president of the commission.

In its 116-page brief, the commission argues that the proposed charter infringes on human rights and that it will not withstand court challenges. This position echoes the messages coming from the federal government in Ottawa, whose Minister for Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, said that Bill 60 would be reviewed by the federal government if it does become law. “We are very concerned about any proposal that would discriminate unfairly against people based on their religion,” added Kenney this past fall.

A variety of polls conducted since the charter’s introduction suggest that the majority of Quebec’s francophones support Bill 60, including Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec (SFPQ), the union that represents the province’s civil servants.

“We’re obliged to keep our political opinions to ourselves,” said SFPQ president Lucie Martineau. “We want that extended to our religious opinions.” And in an opinion piece published in the New York Times, PQ Minister Jean-François Lisée defends the charter as an active liberal policy. He says that it exemplifies the province’s progressivism in the face of English Canada’s outdated multicultural ethos, which has gone the way of its failed European counterparts.

In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel deemed multiculturalism in Germany a complete failure, and a year later British Prime Minister David Cameron asserted that ‘state multiculturalism’ facilitated the rise of radical Islam in Britain.

Concerns about stereotyping and discrimination

The proposed charter is also being held up by supporters as an important exercise in Quebec’s self-determination, as the province frequently forges its own identity by ‘going against the Canadian grain’. This aspect of the charter may appeal to a number of the province’s sovereignist movements.

Nevertheless, opponents of the charter have also been very vocal, with some arguing that this entrenchment of religious neutrality – the idea being that when the state does not favour any religion, it respects everyone’s beliefs – only limits the freedoms of some minorities by placing restrictions on their religious practices in the public sphere.

Divisions between Quebecers could be deepened if the PQ is viewed as using its legislative power to benefit the white francophone majority at the expense of the province’s minorities. Concerns about increasing negative stereotypes and intolerance are also on the rise and appear to have found corroboration in recent polls, as well as reports of Muslim women being attacked (mostly verbally) for wearing veils.

Bill 60 also gives the government the capacity to decide for itself whether to keep or remove Christian symbols that occupy public spaces, such as the crucifix on a wall of the National Assembly and the large illuminated cross at the top of Mount Royal, a steep hill that overlooks Montreal.

Those who would keep the religious symbols in place suggest that they are a part of the cultural heritage of Quebec, while opponents use this as evidence of the charter’s discrimination against Quebecers of non-Christian backgrounds.

“It’s the extra latitude afforded for one religion, which happens to be the religion of the majority population, that makes the ability to provide a consistent constitutional argument more difficult, because they are allowing for exceptions,” said University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

A crucifix hangs over the speaker’s chair in the chamber of Quebec’s National Assembly. Source: Flickr, Takashi Toyooka.

The focus on the crucifix in the province’s National Assembly is not a new one, as it was also an important part of the widely publicized ‘reasonable accommodation’ debates about religious and cultural beliefs in Quebec that took place in 2007-08. Those debates resulted in the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, which also conducted public hearings across the province.

During the 2007-08 debates, which PQ leader Marois said stemmed from an ‘identity crisis’ facing the majority of Quebecers, the provincial legislature voted unanimously to reject the Bouchard-Taylor commission’s recommendation to remove the crucifix in the National Assembly.

Today, members of the province’s sovereignist party, Québec-solidaire, who have largely criticized Bill 60, have called for a far less radical ban on religious garb. They have done this by publishing another charter proposal that is more similar to the Bouchard-Taylor commission report than to the PQ’s charter of values, particularly with respect to how religious accommodation requests should be handled.

Specifically, the Bouchard-Taylor commission report recommended that religious accommodation requests should be handled on a case-to-case basis, whereas the PQ charter would increase state intervention by putting more concrete limits on such requests.

Secularism in Quebec and France

Quebec’s ongoing attempts to solidify its secular identity and provide a framework for reasonable accommodation requests have been compared by both supporters and opponents of the charter to the secularism issue in France.

In 2004, wearing religious symbols in France’s public schools was banned, and in 2011, burqas and niqabs – which fully cover the face – were banned from being worn both in public institutions and in the streets. At the same time that the proposed charter of Quebec values was unveiled in 2013, France’s Education Ministry introduced a new charter of secularism in schools (Charte de la laïcité à l’École) that affirms the 2004 ban on wearing any ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ by students and teachers and further prohibits students from boycotting classes for religious or political reasons.

These restrictions on religious practices and other secularizing laws are frequently interpreted as being aimed at France’s large Muslim population, and recent polls are cited as evidence that they have increased tensions and widened the divisions between the country’s majority and its Muslim minority.

Quebec Premier Marois, however, has said that although France’s model is not perfect, it is better than multiculturalism policies that end up confusing citizens about their society’s collective identity. The struggle to balance individual freedoms with the society’s common values goes on.