Quebec’s Charter of Secularism:
A Reasonable Proposition
Michel Lincourt Ph.D.
Recently, you published an opinion piece written by a Canadian columnist and dealing with Quebec’s proposed Charter of Secularism (New York Times, November 12, 2013). Mr. Patriquin’s op-ed article displayed a catchy yet misleading title: Quebec’s Tea Party Moment. Let me respond to it.
Surely, Mr. Patriquin is entitled to his opinion as long as he tells the truth, I mean, the whole truth.
For American readers not familiar with Canada, I should explain that our country is a federation, which means that it is a decentralized organization comprising a Federal government, ten provinces and three territories. It is the Canadian Constitution that specifies the respective responsibilities of the Federal Parliament and the Provincial Assemblies; for instance, health, education and municipal affairs are under provincial jurisdiction, while defence, currency and territories are under Federal responsibility. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms cohabits with the Charte québécoise des droits et libertés. It is in this context that the Quebec Government tabled Bill 60: the ‘Charter of Secularism’ in Quebec’s National Assembly. A vote is expected sometime next spring.
I should point out also that Quebec distinguishes itself from the other Canadian provinces in more than one aspect. Quebecers form a recognized nation within Canada, a nation that speaks French and values its distinct culture. Rightly so, they are proud of their vitality, social network, artistic creativity and gastronomy. They conduct their affairs within a legal system different from the rest of Canada; theirs is the French-based Code civil while the rest of Canada operates under the British-inspired Common Law. Perhaps a little more than the other Canadians, the people of Quebec cherish gender equality and secularism, as Mr. Patriquin said. And, in order to insure their survival as a community, they rely on institutions underpinned by a solid balance between individual rights and collective rights. Bill 101, the law protecting the French language, is but one example of these institutionalized collective safeguards.
At the same time, Quebecers, federalists or independentists alike, share values with other Canadians: almost all are hard-working, peace-loving, hospitable, caring and gentle people, worshipping hockey and enjoying a cold beer at the end of the day.
The proposed Charter of Secularism is a straightforward, reasonable proposition. Based on the notion that that all citizens are equal and entitled to receive the same services from the State, it seeks to protect their freedom of conscience and ensure social cohesion. It asserts that public institutions are places where all citizens can interact on an equal footing. It says that privileges either for the benefit of an individual or a group are not welcomed in governmental businesses. It strives for the enhancement of what unites people rather than what divides them.
The proposed charter deals exclusively with Quebec’s public service. The term “public servant” encompasses all those who work for the government itself and for para-governmental institutions, such as municipalities, agencies, hospitals, schools, etc.
Basically, the Charter of Secularism contains six elements: (1) proclamation of the state’s neutrality in the matter of religion and other beliefs; (2) inscription of the religious neutrality principle in the Quebec’s Charter of Rights; (3) establishment of criteria for assessing requests of religion-based derogations in government and other workplaces; (4) ban of on-the-job proselytism and other forms of religious propaganda by civil servants; (5) ban of on-the-job display by civil servants of ostentatious religious signs or garments; (6) and ban of mask-wearing or face-covering by both civil servants and users of government’s services. That’s all. One can read the bill’s full text on the Quebec’s National Assembly web site
At the moment, in Quebec, after three months of public debate, there is a very strong consensus among citizens and political parties supporting five of the six components of the proposed charter. The only contentious proposition concerns the on-the-job display by civil servants of ostentatious signs or garments. The ruling party (PQ) suggests an over-all ban, the first opposition party (PLQ) wants no ban at all, and the second and third opposition parties (CAQ and QS) propose a partial ban. In the public, most recent polls indicate that more than 55% of the people support the over-all ban. All in all, one can say that the proposed charter enjoys public support.
That being said, a fierce opposition was engineered in the media against the proposed charter, targeting especially the ban of religious signs. Self-appointed condescending pundits indulged in slanders and resumed their Quebec-bashing stabs, leaders of federalist political parties threw accusations and treats, and the Islamist fringe of the Muslim Montreal community accused Quebecers of islamophobia. Many more insults were thrown at Quebecers: almost daily, they or their government were accused of Nazism, Talibanism, racism, xenophobia, emulating Vladimir Poutine, small-mindedness, and the like. Mr. Patriquin joined the fray. In Maclean’s magazine where he maintains a regular column, he used epithets such as ‘economic and cultural genocide, cheap vote-grabbing distraction, and cynical and dangerous game’.
But most Quebecers and about 40% of Canadians from the rest of the country disagree with the offensive pundits, including Mr. Patriquin. In a recent article in Ottawa’s magazine, The Hill Times, seasoned pollster Oleh Iwanyshyn exposed the manipulation by some English-Canadian editorialists of public-opinion polls in order to demonize the charter. Perhaps an extensive quote is needed at this point. Mr. Iwanyshyn wrote:
“Portraying the charter as an attack on religious freedoms is simply a convenient way by which to bash the PQ party while feigning concern about religious freedoms. The recent editorial in The Toronto Star is typical of this duplicity. It describes the proposed charter as something that ‘offends basic Canadian decency, erases human dignity, sends an ugly message that some are less welcome than other, and offends the Constitution, Quebec’s long tradition of tolerance, and this nation’s deeply held values’. Really? Are the millions of Canadians, both French and English, who support the charter that gullible, so lacking in decency, so insensitive of the human indignity they are causing, and so intolerant of other religions that they could embrace this diabolical creed? Unless one is totally cynical, this line of reasoning fails the credibility test.”
In the NYT piece, Mr. Patriquin wrote that “far from unifying the province, the issue has underscored the divisions between the chaotic, multicultural city of Montreal and the mostly white hinterland beyond its shores”. While Montreal is certainly multicultural, it is no more chaotic than New York or Toronto, for instance. Whites form the demographic majority in both Montreal and the rest of the province: this is no more than a historical fact. And, as we have seen, a strong majority in both Montreal and the rest of the province supports the charter. Self-proclaimed pundits like Mr. Patriquin love to see divisions where there is no more than a normal divergence of opinion on a complex social issue.
On that point, it might be useful to draw your readers’ attention to a minor oversight in Mr. Patriquin’s piece. What he failed to say is that, after presenting its orientations regarding the policy on secularism, the Quebec government encouraged citizens to express their opinion on its web site. More than 26000 of them answered: 47% declared themselves in favor of the proposition as it was introduced, 21% were in favor of it but with minor changes, 18% voiced their opposition, and 14% were non-committed.
This oversight was not the only one. Take a look at this one.
In early September, two weeks after the government’s intentions were known, the negative barrage against the charter was raging in the media. Taken aback by this onslaught, thirteen concerned citizens got together, and agreed that some form of public support to the government’s project needed to be made public. They phoned their friends, wrote a Declaration and published it on-line, together with a petition. Immediately, many people signed in. On September 24, a press conference was held to announce the creation of the Rassemblement pour la laïcité. Four personalities spoke on behalf of the gathering. Two were women, a Muslim school teacher and a former student leader, and two men, a retired journalist and a renowned scholar. At the moment of the press conference, the Rassemblement assembled fifteen associations and some 20 000 individuals. Today, it groups nineteen associations and 54600 ‘ordinary’ citizens.
At the same moments, 20 women took a similar initiative. Thousands also joined their movement. They have since been known as the Janette, to honour a well-known and respected 88 year-old author/actress/journalist/women’s rights activist, Janette Bertrand, one of the twenty women.
The Janette and the Rassemblement people joined forces and organized a public demonstration. On October 26, under freezing rain, twenty thousand smiling citizens of all ages, coming from all walks of life, women and men, old and new Quebecers, marched in Montreal’s downtown. And chanted their support for secularism.
I wonder why Mr. Patriquin didn’t tell you about these events. Perhaps, in his mind, citizenry in action doesn’t make a good copy.
Let’s return to Mr. Patriquin’s article. He hinted that [dividing Quebecers] “may be the unspoken goal of the Parti Québécois”. I am not a member of the Parti Québécois, I am not even an independentist, but I know for a fact that no political party in Quebec seeks to divide Quebecers. Many pundits humour this kind of innuendos buttressed only by their sarcasm.
Mr. Patriquin wrote that “by targeting Quebec’s religious minorities – in particular veiled Muslim women… – the party is rallying its overwhelmingly white Francophone base”. This is absolutely false. Secularism as a concept and the proposed charter are neither an attack on religions nor an attack on religious minorities. In fact, it pursues the opposite goal: securing freedom of conscience for all citizens and ensuring that, no matter what religion one adheres to, no matter what beliefs one holds dear, no matter what are one’s convictions as a believer or non-believer, one will be treated exactly the same way by all civil servants.
Contrary to what Mr. Patriquin said, Muslims form 3% of Quebec’s population, not 1,5%. The Muslim population, today 240000 strong, has doubled during the past ten years. In 2011, Quebec welcomed 51000 immigrants, and 14000 of those came from Muslim countries. These latter figures indicate that Quebec is far from being a self-centered community.
Mr. Patriquin wrote: “By targeting Quebec religious minorities…” Here, he is lying: one needs only to read the proposed charter to conclude that it targets no one in particular. The secularisation of Quebec’s society is a historic endeavour that started almost one hundred years ago, well before the so-called religious minorities ever existed.
Mr. Patriquin said two things about France, and both are incorrect. The first is this: after the ban of religious signs by pupils in public schools in 2004, Muslim children fled their ‘intolerant’ institutions in order to register, en masse, in private schools. Nothing of the kind happened. As a matter of fact, very, very few Muslims children were taken out of their school. One needs to know that, in France, there are some 12000 private schools, 9000 of those are Catholic and less than 40 are Muslim. Second, Mr. Patriquin hinted that the suburbs of Paris were “dangerous”. Well, on this point, let’s say that he exaggerated grossly. I have friends and family living in Parisian suburbs and I know from personal experience that their respective neighbourhood is quite safe. Mr. Patriquin should have put things in perspective. In 2011, the homicide rate for greater Paris was 1,64 murder per 100000 people, while New York’s was 6,2. If Paris is dangerous, then by Mr. Patriquin’s standard, the NYT staff is living in a war zone.
Finally, our shrewd columnist declared that “the left of center Parti Québécois has seemingly venture into Tea Part territory…” Seemingly? Does he means that he is not sure of what he says? No matter, this statement of his is simply ludicrous. There is a world of difference between the Tea Party’s mentality and the Parti Québécois’ cultural traits. The Tea Party sits at the extreme right of the political spectrum, while the PQ stands left of center. The Tea Party argues for small government, while the PQ never proposed to curb Quebec’s public services, and never did it while in power. The Tea Party supporters are against same-sex marriage, abortion and gun-control, while the PQ advocates exactly the opposite. And the Tea Party supporters say that religion constitutes the biggest influence in their life, while the PQ say nothing of the sort, and support secularism. To infer, as Mr. Patriquin did, that the PQ is exploiting an anti-immigrant sentiment for political gain is dishonest. Besides, does it really exist, this so-called Canadian anti-immigrant sentiment, in a country that welcomes 300000 immigrants a year? Let’s not forget that, relative to their respective population, Canada admits almost three times more immigrants than the USA.
What next? Starting January 13 of next year, the Quebec government will hold a Parliamentary Commission (a public hearing) on the proposed Charter of Secularism. Surely, hundreds of citizens and groups will present a brief. After this, National Assembly elected members will debate, negotiate and vote. This is what we call a respectful democratic process.
Michel Lincourt Ph.D.