The Charter is Dead. Long Live the Charter!
David Rand, 2014-04-27
In the Quebec elections of April 7th 2014, the Parti québécois (PQ) government was soundly defeated. What does this mean for its proposed Bill 60, the famous Charter of secularism?
With the crushing defeat of the PQ in the recent elections, the secular Charter proposed by the outgoing government is now dead. It would be easy to conclude that the defeat of the party implies a definitive defeat for secularism, but that would be incorrect. In spite of ferocious opposition, the Charter was not the principal cause – and perhaps not even a cause at all – of the defeat. Furthermore, although the Charter as a specific proposal of secular legislation is very dead indeed, the goal of completely secularizing the Quebec state – and the Canadian state! – remains a critical and unresolved issue, a question which will inevitably return to the spotlight and contribute in major ways to future debates about the sort of society in which we wish to live. Secularism is not only necessary; it is indeed a popular idea, and not just inside Quebec.
Analyses of the election results reveal that the defeat of the PQ cannot be explained by a rejection of the Charter, nor by the arrival of the media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau whose reputation threatened to damage that of a political party claiming to be progressive. The evidence strongly suggests that the results were rather a rejection of the party’s sovereignist programme.[2,3] The Charter was instead collateral damage.
The intent here is not to underestimate the gravity of the situation. The adoption of the Charter would have constituted a major advance for secularism; the disappearance of that proposal is clearly a major setback. The election of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) as majority government, a party which henceforth is a staunch opponent of secularism and whose recent electoral success can in part be ascribed to significant support from Islamic fundamentalists, represents nevertheless a victory, temporary at least, for stagnation, multiculturalism and obscurantism.
Neither must we forget the tactics of the anti-Charter camp, an opposition which did not shy away from the basest possible manœuvres, the most extreme bad faith, in its determination to defame secularists as racist, xenophobic, intolerant, etc.
The issue of the crucifix hanging on the wall of the legislative chamber of the National Assembly in Quebec City is a good illustration of the incoherence of those who opposed the charter while themselves claiming to be for secularism. Recall that the Charter did not mention this crucifix, specifying neither that it must stay, nor that it must be removed. Nevertheless, several Charter opponents used this issue to denounce the Charter as insufficiently secular and they did so with their usual dishonesty, giving the impression that the Charter had declared that the crucifix must stay. How ironic it is then, that we now have a government which has actually adopted an explicit policy to keep the crucifix where it is!
At least the defeat of the PQ will allow us in future to make a clearer distinction between partisan politics and secularism: that is to say, the enemies of secularism will no longer have available to them the easy tactic of drawing the spectre of sovereignism from their arsenal of ideological weapons and brandishing it in order to inspire fear. However, in turning the page, let us not forget the courage shown by the Parti québécois, courage of which promoters of secularism will have great need in the future. No other political party in Quebec, and even less so in Canada outside Quebec, has dared to go as far in the direction of secularisation. Who knows whether, in the medium or long term, that party or another formation will one day find itself at the centre stage of political developments by proposing similar legislation?
The Charter as implemented in draft Bill 60 is thus dead. But the questions it raised remain current and of capital importance for our societies, our quality of life and our freedoms. Any programme of secularism will be incomplete if it does not include a ban on religious symbols in the public service, including those worn by civil servants. Any organization which claims to be secularist must recognize that such a ban is not only feasible and reasonable, it is desirable and necessary in order to guarantee the religious neutrality of the public service. An obvious example of this problem in Canada is the privilege granted to Sikhs in the RCMP which exempts them from the requirement to wear the same uniform (including head covering) as other agents.
We must continue to criticize the essentialism which is at the heart of multiculturalist ideology, that is, the false notion that religious belief and affiliation constitute an essential and immutable aspect of the individual, as if each person were compelled to remain a prisoner of the community in which he or she was raised and thus negating freedom of conscience.
Finally, let us not forget positions taken during the Charter debate. If you are a member of an association which claims to promote secularism but which took a public position against the Charter and against the ban on religious symbols worn by state employees on the job, I would urge you to try to get that position changed so that the association would at least not oppose such a ban in future. But if that is not possible, then I would suggest that you reconsider your membership in that association. There are several organizations working for secularism and Enlightment values, both within Quebec and outside, groups which supported the Charter, including ours. I ask that you direct your energies towards the promotion of secularism.
- “Almost half of all Canadians support Quebec’s plan to implement ban on religious headwear, symbols: poll”, Katrina Clarke, 2013-08-26
- “Déchiffrer l’élection de 2014 : L’éléphant dans la pièce” (Decyphering the 2014 Election: The Elephant in the Room”), Jean-François Lisée, 2014-04-09
- “La ‘charte de la laïcité’ n’a pas nui au Parti Québécois” (The ‘Secular Charter’ did not Harm the Parti Québécois), Daniel Baril, 2014-04-17
- “Le Conseil musulman de Montréal a émis des consignes de vote anti-PQ pour sa communauté” (The Muslim Council of Montreal Instructed Community Members to Vote Against the PQ), Caroline d’Astous, 2014-04-11
- “La défense du crucifix aidera à gagner des voix, selon des députés” (Defending the Crucifix Will Help to Win Votes, say MNAs), Robert Dutrisac, 2014-01-28
- “I say ‘Vote PQ to save Canada’!” Tarek Fatah, 2014-04-01