Quebec’s Proposed Charter of Values Riles Minorities and the Rest of Canada

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Justin Canning / Demotix / Corbis

A man shouts as he joins a protest against a proposed Charter of Values that will see the banning of the wearing of overtly religious clothing or items by those working in the public sector, in Montreal, on Sept. 14, 2013.

The monumental steel cross that looks over eastern Montreal, and the hue of whose L.E.D. bulbs changes to signal certain holidays or the death of a pope, is not the first of its kind. The city’s founder, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, erected a simple wooden cross on the same spot in 1643 to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the place against a particularly devastating flood. Now, as the debate escalates over the Quebec government’s proposed “Charter of Values,” which would prohibit public servants from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols, some residents have turned their thoughts to these lights on the hill.

“Quebec is not a blank page,” Bernard Drainville, the province’s minister for democratic institutions, who unveiled the plan for the charter on September 10, told TIME. “Building our future shouldn’t come at the expense of our past, our heritage.” The gleaming cross on the hill, in other words, will stay.

The future, as pictured by the Parti Québécois (PQ), which calls for national sovereignty for Quebec, is a “religiously neutral state.” Since it won a minority government last September, the party has tried repeatedly to reassure its hardline separatist base of its part as a protector and defender of Quebecois identity. Backtrack a few months, and its vision for the future was to prepare for passage a massive revision to the province’s current language legislation. Had the PQ succeeded, French in the Canadian province would have been regulated to a globally unprecedented degree. But Bill 14, its hugely controversial language law, is all but dead. The Charter of Values, still kicking, has taken its place, becoming the PQ’s newest method of safeguarding “our common principles,” dividing Quebec and provoking an outcry from the rest of Canada. No other province subscribes to such a charter. The most ready comparison is to France’s laïcité, or secularism, specifically as wielded under the right-wing former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Only France’s initiative was not quite so sweeping.

The charter, if it passes into law, will affect government workers and employees of institutions that receive public funds—from judges, school teachers and police officers to doctors and daycare staffers. A cartoonish graphic released last week illustrates the types of symbols that would be banned to them (Muslim head coverings of all kinds, skull caps, turbans and especially large crucifixes, which makes this broader than France’s secularism scheme) and the types that would continue to be acceptable in the workplace (pieces of small jewelry bearing religious imagery). The restrictions would not apply to elected officials. And the plan would also require all members of the public to uncover their faces when giving or receiving a state service, like applying for a driver’s license.

According to Drainville, the charter was prompted by “unreasonable” exemptions made by public institutions for religious groups and religiously motivated individuals over the past years. “These accommodations raised a lot of tension in the province. We feel it’s necessary that the state be respectful of every religion, of every moral and philosophical conviction, and the best way to respect everyone’s rights is to have a state that has no religion. Religious neutrality is a condition for equality for all.”

But, far from seeing this as an avenue to equality, critics have called the plan both unconstitutional and xenophobic. They point out that because of the suggested law against “overt” symbols, it’ll overwhelmingly target Muslims and Sikhs, who account for 1.6% of the province’s population. The giant cross perched atop Mount Royal or the crucifix that hangs above the speaker’s chair in the province’s legislative assembly will be left untouched, since the PQ views them as historically significant objects in a post-Catholic Quebec.

The charter plan has been opposed by every major federal party but the secessionist Bloc Québécois, the PQ’s sister party in Ottawa—which ousted its only ethnic minority, female MP from its caucus when she expressed her dissent—and if it passes, may be challenged in court by the Canadian government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke out for the first time since its release at a news conference in British Columbia on September 16. “I do not see the charter in its current form going anywhere,” he said. “I think the common sense of Quebecers will force this towards a reasonable conclusion as the debate progresses.” A public opinion poll that came out Monday does indeed indicate that support for the measure within Quebec has taken a dip, and an anti-charter petition had garnered, as of Thursday, over 20,000 signatures. But still, according to the new poll, about half of Quebecers are behind the charter, including the leaders of the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique (SFPQ) union, which represents the province’s civil servants and has 42,000 members.

Support is strongest in Quebec’s outlying regions. In Montreal, where the majority of immigrants to the province live, the measure has been more or less universally panned. Mayor Lionel Perez of the Côte-des-Neiges — Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough introduced a motion in city council in which Montreal would refuse to endorse the charter in its current form. It was passed by a unanimous vote. “Everything Catholic has been relegated to the category of ‘patrimonial,’ and all things new or different are considered religious,” said Perez, who is a practicing Jew and wears a yarmulke. “The assumption will by definition create a second class of citizen. No one should have to choose between working for the state and their religious convictions. And obviously, the fact that someone doesn’t wear a religious symbol is not a guarantee of impartiality. We should be judging people by their actions, not their appearance.”

On Saturday, a protest through Montreal’s downtown core, co-organized by the Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia and the Muslim Council of Montreal, drew crowds of thousands. Women wearing head coverings carried pink and purple signs that read, “Keep Calm and Love Your Hijab.” Some participants in the “multicultural march,” as it was billed, were heard crying out: “Quebec is not France!” “We were able to mobilize everyone in just three days and the level of diversity was amazing,” said Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council. “We wanted to stand by the people who may become victims of this charter.” Indeed, plenty of the protesters seemed concerned about how the plan might impact their career futures.

“The government sees this as a law for unity, to unify Quebecers, and to ensure women’s equality,” Elmenyawi said. “But it has done nothing but divide Quebec people since it was released.” Instances of violence and harassment against the wearers of religious symbols have become more prevalent (or at least more publicized). A Muslim woman wearing a hijab was accosted in a Quebec City mall, and a mosque in the Saguenay region was splattered with what was claimed to be pig’s blood. A video captured on a Montreal city bus shortly after news of the charter was leaked to the media shows a male passenger asking a woman in a headscarf to return to her country. At one point he shouts: “This is our home! With [Quebec Premier Pauline] Marois, we’re going to take off your hat.” Elmenyawi has received about a dozen complaints recently that involve these types of confrontations, he said. He has also taken a number of calls from non-Muslim women wondering where to buy hijabs so that they might cover their heads in solidarity.

To pass the charter, the minority PQ will need the support of at least one of the province’s two primary opposition parties. Pauline Marois’s best hope is the Coalition Avenir Québec, which agrees with certain of the plan’s propositions and is hoping that the government will slightly soften the ones with which it doesn’t. Already, Philippe Couillard, head of the Quebec Liberals, has said that the charter would become law “over my dead body.” Earlier, he demanded, “Instead of getting active in how people dress, can’t you take care of the real issues?” Couillard is not the only one wondering why, when Quebec’s economy is at a standstill, the government has made this its priority. Many have referred to it as a short-term and ill-advised political tactic. But Minister Drainville described it as the natural extension of a process that began in the 1960s, when Quebec decided to move away from the Catholic Church and priests and nuns teaching in the new public school system accepted to give up their religious garb.

“If this was a good idea for Catholics in the ’60s, why is it not a good idea for all religions fifty years later?” Drainville asked. The government has called on Quebecers to submit their comments to its website before it presents the charter as a bill to the legislature this fall. He is certain to find some answers there.