The proposed Charter of Québec Values is the response of the Parti Québécois to the decline of the party’s popularity to its lowest level since the minority government was elected one year ago. In the space of that year, disillusionment has set in among a swath of PQ supporters confronted with such measures as the zero-deficit objective championed by Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau, spending cuts inflicted by, of all people, the Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity Agnès Maltais, and pipeline- friendly energy policies.
The intense debate now raging over the charter— and especially that section which would prohibit public sector employees from wearing conspicuous religious attire and symbols—has hijacked the political agenda and is obscuring the government’s policy missteps as the PQ attempts to boost its waning approval rating by appealing to “national values.” The PQ’s gambit here is to recoup support from voters seduced by the right-wing opposition Coalition Avenir Québec, so the proposed charter actually exempts the crucifix in the National Assembly, deemed an icon of national heritage, from the ban on religious symbols.
The charter debate brings into play conflicting visions of secularism and sovereignty. There is the racialist vision reflected in the PQ’s proposed charter, wedded to Québec’s Christian heritage and evincing clear traces of Islamophobia. The PQ vision is entirely lacking in an emancipatory social project aimed at satisfying the economic and social needs of the majority of the population. The alternative vision, expressed by some feminist and progressive groups, is one of a sovereign and socialist Québec open to all religions and cultures.
The PQ’s charter is fanning divisions, anger and hostility in Québec society, as witnessed by increasing reports of verbal attacks on Muslim women. It is also creating tensions within the sovereignty movement, as evidenced by the expulsion of MP Maria Mourani from the Bloc Québécois caucus, by criticism of the Charter voiced by former PQ leaders Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, by the proposal of an alternative charter of secular values by left-wing party Québec Solidaire, and by conflicting reactions to the charter on the part of various feminist and labour groups.
One of the reasons for these rifts lies with the burden of Québec’s religious past and the legitimate historical struggle for a secular state, beginning with the 1960s’ Quiet Revolution. Many citizens who fought for the liberation of Québec society from the stranglehold of the Catholic Church conceive the charter as an extension of that battle.
The PQ has failed, however, to win the support it expected: Québecers’ approval for the charter declined from more than 65 to 46 per cent at the time of this writing.
The negative attention the Québec charter has elicited from the rest of Canada smacks of hypocrisy, especially as one poll showed that almost half of all Canadians approved the draft charter’s ban on religious symbols. In addition to masking the deep racism and sexism that exist across the country, the outcry from the rest of Canada is also counterproductive. The vote against the Québec charter by the Ontario legislature and the federal NDP decision to cover the legal fees for any challenge to the charter were an abnegation of Québec jurisdiction, serving only to bolster support for the charter within Québec.
While Québec is not alone in facing problems of exclusion and racism, it alone can resolve the immediate problem that its government has created. Canadians outside Québec can play a supportive role by fighting racism in their own communities and advancing their own liberating vision of an inclusive society.
This article appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Mining Issue: Taking on the Canadian Goliath).