Thomas Jefferson said: “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights.” In Jefferson’s mind, the secular state is inherently inclusive. However, the Quebec government has proposed a new and insidious version of secularity that embraces the very bigotry that the secular state is supposed to reject.
As it is currently framed, secularity in Canada is deeply tied to multiculturalism. A cultural mosaic can only exist in a state that refuses to privilege one religion over another.
However, secularity and multiculturalism are both illusory ideals; we conceive of Canada as a secular and multicultural nation, but the reality does not match the advertisement.
Canada values ethnic diversity, but our stores still cater to Christmas rather than Ramadan. We ban the church from the courtroom, but the Ten Commandments are fundamentally ingrained in Canadian law. In short, we call ourselves a secular nation, but our languages, laws, and government institutions are derived from a tradition that is Western, white, and undeniably Christian.
The purpose of Canadian multiculturalism is not to create a state in which a host of different cultures live and thrive together equally. Rather, the multicultural state simply recognizes that no culture is inherently inferior to another. As far as it can, the multicultural framework is one that tries to allow other cultures to preserve their traditions in a Western nation.
So if Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois are going to preach from the pulpit about their vision of an idyllic God-is-dead Canadian state, we need to call their bluff. They don’t seek a secular state — Canada is far too Christian for that, and Quebec far too Catholic.
Some will counter that the proposal equally bans employees from wearing Christian symbols. However, the legislation conveniently allows “small religious symbols” to be worn. Whereas many religions mandate that their adherents bear some kind of obvious symbol, Christianity has no such requirement.
The charter purports to treat all religions equally, but actually privileges normative Christianity over other belief systems. The legislation appears egalitarian, but is actually discriminatory. As Anatole France said: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor to sleep under bridges…” Under the “majestic equality” of the charter, Christians and Muslims alike are prohibited from wearing a hijab.
The secularity proposed by Quebec must be recognized as fundamentally intolerant.If passed into law, it will discriminate against Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs — but not Christians.
Should we foster diversity, or should we reject it? Do we join the rest of the world, so preoccupied with cultural rifts? Or do we envision a new kind of nation — an innovative Canada — that focuses not on cultural difference, but on shared humanity? The Canada I know and love is a space in which any individual, government employee or not, can celebrate their culture with pride. Let’s keep it that way.
Devyn Noonan is a third-year English student.
The Parti Quebecois’ recently proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which seeks to eliminate religious symbols in public sector jobs, requires us both to analyze the motivation behind the proposed ban as well as to consider the potential philosophical outcomes if the charter is passed. The party’s motivation seems clear enough; it is attempting to remove the presence of religion in authoritative roles within the state in order to reduce any conflict that could arise due to religious affiliation. However, this contradicts the multicultural value of religious freedom and sets a political tone opposite the one established by the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In Quebec’s history, the Quiet Revolution — a subversion of Catholicism’s traditional domination of provincial politics — represents an ideological precursor to this newest attempt to secularize the state. This proposed ban may be an indirect result of the Quiet Revolution’s success, but it lacks the defined source of conflict that ultimately drove the revolution.
Because Quebec never signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it has a separate, although similar, charter of values. The Quebec Charter states in section 1.1 that every person has a right to exercise their fundamental rights, regardless of origin or social position, and this includes the freedom of religion expression. Therefore, any mandate requiring public employees to compromise their religious rights violates not only the letter of the law, but also the more abstract philosophical motivation behind creating a charter of values.
It is important to note that small, inconspicuous tokens are still acceptable under the proposed charter. This results in an outright differentiation between Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim symbols and those of Christianity. Since a vast majority of Quebec’s population is Catholic, it seems as though the individuals proposing this ban are looking to carve out special status for the province’s Catholic community. When a political regime enacts these types of regulations, it is invariably perceived to be making a statement about the public perception of these groups. By banning certain religious expression and thereby stigmatizing specific faiths or cultures, the state fosters an “us vs. them” mentality.
Regulating any type of individual expression is bound to stir up controversy. Although the intentions of the charter may be good, the proposed ban, unfortunately, can only be damaging. It holds religion to be something negative or offensive, and definitely as something to keep to yourself. It is an absolutist political philosophy that goes against Canada’s established social values. Not only does it offend the country’s sensitivity towards religious tolerance, it also highlights an underlying suspicion of how certain faiths and cultures are perceived. To some extent, it also reveals an intolerant mood in Quebec that ought to be rooted out quickly, before the province suffers the kind of public outrage that inevitably results when a democratic government moves to limit individual freedoms.
Olivia Forsyth-Sells is studying English and philosophy.
It is imperative that The Charter of Quebec Values, recently proposed by Pauline Marois’ provincial government, not be carried through. The charter aims to preserve the province’s religious neutrality by eliminating possible sources of conflict like religious symbols. However, does the charter serve its purpose of protecting multicultural values by removing visible differences in dress, or does it infringe upon individual rights unnecessarily? Doctors, teachers, and daycare workers should all be allowed to exercise their right to religious expression. Rather than taking an administrative shortcut by requiring all government employees to represent the neutrality of the state, Quebec should commit itself to the hard work of overcoming societal prejudice. The proposed ban is crude and ineffective — it does not protect or celebrate Canada’s multicultural character but instead sends the message that one might face discrimination if they wear a hijab, therefore they should not be allowed to wear one at all.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair have all denounced the proposed charter. Mulcair noted that: “what we have today is an attempt to impose state-mandated discrimination against minorities in the Quebec civil service.” Adding that, “to be told that a woman working in a daycare centre, because she’s wearing a head scarf, will lose her job is to us intolerable.” Amnesty International has similar concerns saying the Quebec values charter would “limit fundamental rights.”
Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, a retired Supreme Court judge, is one of the individuals expected to back the charter. In an interview with Radio-Canada, she stated: “some rights are more fundamental than others and, in Canada, the right to equality trumps religion.”
An argument could be made that the proposed restrictions on displaying religious tokens should apply to law enforcement and the judiciary exclusively rather than all civil servants. For the reason that these roles represent the coercive power of the state rather than everyday government services, defenders of the law should make an extra effort to appear neutral.
Upholding equality does not translate into everyone looking the same, but into being treated the same. A fundamental part of this, especially in such a multicultural country, is allowing and celebrating the expression of different cultures, ethnicities, and religious groups. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically enshrines equality before and under the law, ensuring that every citizen, regardless of religion, culture, or creed can enjoy the fair administration of justice. While Quebec’s special status within Canada gives it much maneuvering room to alter or supersede existing laws, the courts may still declare the charter unconstitutional.
Everyday civilians, however, should be able to celebrate their personal heritage and their Québécois heritage (or Canadian heritage) simultaneously, without the former excluding the latter. Therefore, being a devout Muslim does not eclipse being a proud Canadian, wearing a kippah shouldn’t ban you from public service, and wearing a turban should not be grounds for condemnation.
Sonia Liang is a second-year student studying English and political science.