Pauline Marois and her minority PQ provincial government sent shock waves through Canadian media and politics with the announcement of a proposed “secular charter”; a legislative document essentially disallowing public workers such as day care, health care, and teaching professionals from donning any sort of “ostentatious” religious attire or symbol. The charter has recently been outlined to specifically disallow the turban, hijab, yamaca, and large crucifixes from the public sector workplace. The charter has come under much scrutiny and debate from a plethora of academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens across Canada, and is the subject of much controversy. The provincial Liberal and CAQ governments in Quebec are largely opposed to the Charter, making it unlikely to see the light of day in the current minority government. However, charter or no charter, Marois has won a critical battle through its proposition alone. By merely attempting to enact a discriminatory secular Charter, Marois and the PQ party succeed in playing divisive identity politics and reinforcing negative stereotypes which differentiate Quebec and Canada.
For one of the first times in a while, the three major federal political parties have shown a united front. Justin Trudeau denounced the charter immediately, and has repeatedly championed the idea of a multicultural Quebec. Not to be outdone, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair recently announced his emphatic opposition to the charter at the NDP caucus retreat, and accurately characterized the proposed legislation as “state mandated discrimination”. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney of the Conservative Party was similarly opposed to the PQ’s charter, going as far as to say that should the bill be passed into law, the federal government would challenge the law’s validity based on violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While these proclamations against the proposed charter of values are undoubtedly admirable, and may succeed in protecting the religious rights of public workers and minorities, they also play right into the PQ’s hands.
The firm rebuttal from each federal party will allow Premier Marois to claim that the interests and values of Quebecers are not reflected in Ottawa, furthering her ultimate goal of Quebec separatism. Furthermore, a legal challenge of the kind proposed by Jason Kenney is fraught with even greater potential for heated separatist rhetoric. The challenge to the charter of values has an airtight legal case in constitutional law; after all, section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Not giving individuals the right to express their religion through symbols is a clear violation of this right. However, win or lose, Pauline Marois is victorious. Should the federal government’s legal challenge be successful, it would allow Marois to increase the tone of her already heated rhetoric and claim that social and ethnic justice for Quebecers is not represented in the Canadian legal system, giving further “justification” to her separatist cause. If the claim was rejected, then Marois would be able to use her “Charter of Quebec Values” in accordance with her discriminatory ideologies.
However, the battle that the PQ seeks is not only between federal and provincial government. The Parti Quebecois thrives on resentment, stereotypes, and division. Proposing this charter does more than pit political figures against one another; more worryingly, it attempts to divide Quebecers from Canadians, francophones from anglophones, and natives from immigrants. Separatist ideology may be at an all time low, but memories of referendums and constitutional debates still resonate strongly in the minds of anglo-Canadians. Seeing this charter in the news reawakens dormant stereotypes of Quebec xenophobia and separatism, and causes misguided resentment towards Quebecers. Canadians are nothing if not multicultural, and consequently are very quick to defend this belief. However, their defense comes at the expense of national unity, since many Canadians will be quick to dismiss Quebec as a whole for their supposedly uniform xenophobic, pro-separation beliefs rather than analyze the circumstances of this proposed charter. Conversely, Quebec people may be inclined to feel resentful towards the Canadian populace for their labeling and stereotyping of an entire province.
Therefore, one must hope that Canadians not from Quebec can put this charter of values into context before launching attacks against entire province. While citizens have every right to be outraged at a deliberately discriminatory piece of legislation, remember that this a document proposed by a weak minority government that was essentially elected as a “protest vote” to provincial Liberal corruption. Remember that separatist ideology is fading, and remember that many influential Quebec unions, academics, and political figures are strictly opposed to this xenophobic ideology. Marois wants anglo-Canada attacking Quebecers and making them feel threatened; while the protests to this legislation are both valid and important, they must be directed at the responsible party only. The party proposing this bill is a weak minority government and a proponent of a dying ideology.
Similarly, Quebecers need to know that their rights are assured by the actions of both the other two major provincial Quebec parties, as well as by the federal political parties. Quebecers need to remember that when this charter of values is defeated, Marois and her sensationalist rhetoric must be ignored at all costs. This is a woman who represents a corrosive, bitter ideology of division- do not let this division spread. Pauline Marois and her PQ government may be basking in the light of the controversy that they have deliberately created for now, but a reasoned, unified response to their tactics can once again show separatist idealogues that its time has long past, and has no place in a united, open, multicultural Canada.
– Eli Vincent Zivot