Equality or persecution? Parti Québécois seems confused

TWs: discrimination, religious persecution, racism, sexism

Tuesday, Jan. 14 marked the beginning of hearings on Québec’s proposed charter of values which will run until Friday, Feb. 7. Since its first announcement in May 2013, the charter has gained much public criticism and has struck the debate on individual freedom and rights, and religious accommodations in the public sphere that extends the borders of the province itself.

QuébecIf passed, Bill 60 would prohibit employees working in Québec’s public sector from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes, and visible crucifixes as an attempt by Parti Québécois to secularize the state and promote neutrality. (While also, note: keeping the crucifix in the National Assembly, which is a matter that is open for debate and voting amongst politicians, but still remains exempted from the rule.)

For a pluralist country like Canada, who heralds itself liberal, modern, and has made the policy of multiculturalism an inherent value for Canadian identity, the proposal of a charter such as this is not only controversial, but dangerous and complicated.

The history between Québec and the rest of Canada has been fraught with competiting ideas, division, and conflict dating all the way back to 1763 and fueled even more by the 1960s, which saw the beginnings of the Québec separatist movement. It is important to note that this charter is proposed and administered by a very particular political group; in some ways, there is an underlying current of the PQ’s aim to separate itself even further from the rest of Canada.

The prohibition of freedom to express religion violates fundamental rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Values and is, ultimately, unconstitutional. By doing so, intentionally or not, this suggests that the Québec provincial government is playing a much different game from the rest of the country. Many francophones would disagree. In fact, for them, secularism would promote equality and discourage discrimination.

When asked about Bill 60, Bernard Drainville, the cabinet minister responsible for the proposed charter, said that “It’s a bill for Québecers that reflects what we are as a society. It’s a moderate, well-balanced bill and the kind of state secularism that we are proposing is going to be a state secularism that is unique to the Québec society.” Among supporters is an ex-Supreme Court justice, Claire L’Heuruex-Dubé, who herself has advocated for equality between men and women. The Globe and Mail recounts what she told Radio-Canada in May 2013: “that the British model of social integration was creating ghettos, that women in veils were separating themselves from the mainstream, and the minorities had to adapt to common values such as sexual equality.” (And this, dear Reader, just screams white feminism to me.)

The Ottawa Citizen has deemed the Québec charter as an “affront to Canadian values,” and has claimed that “[it] is government-sponsored discrimination masquerading as secularism.” Or rather too, in my opinion, government-sponsored discrimination masquerading as aims for equality and freedom. The very title, in English, promotes the idea of neutrality and equality claiming Bill 60 as a “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.”

If this is indeed an attempt for Parti Québécois to promote neutrality and equality, it’s a skewed perception of both, at the expense of marginalizing and violating the freedom of visible religious and racial minorities. It is equally oppressive, for instance, to assume that any women wearing a hijab are subjugated and oppressed. It is equally oppressive, for instance, and no more acceptable for a law to dictate and prevent women from wearing such clothing. A neutral and secular state diminishes Canada as a pluralistic and (supposedly, ‘proud’) multicultural country and instead, promotes the exclusion of women by perpetuating the notions of the oppression of women by radical religious groups.

In light of recent events surrounding the controversy of a male university student requesting to work separate from female classmates due to his religious beliefs, the question is one of reasonable accommodations (and to what extent) cannot be divided simply and clearly into black and white. Freedom and equality cannot be achieved when bills continue to harm fundamental rights, especially when one right undermines the values of others. Rather, freedom and equality can only be achieved when we recognize the grey between the black and the white, and meet at the intersections.

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