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Push for 'secularism' divides French Canada

Official charter would ban public servants from wearing religious symbols, such as headscarves, yarmulkes or crucifixes.

Last updated: 13 Nov 2013 09:53
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Demonstrators protested in Montreal in September against the bill to ban overtly religious symbols [Reuters]

Quebec, Canada - As the government of Quebec moves forward with its controversial "secularism charter", the Canadian province is strongly divided over the plan to ban religious symbols from the public sphere.

"Some people will leave Quebec because of this. Some people will leave their jobs because of this," said Rémi Bourget, a lawyer and president of Québec Inclusif, a group mobilising against the government's proposal. "Freedom of religion in Quebec, in North America, includes the right to wear something that shows your religion. When the government is sending the message that these rights are not so fundamental anymore, we think this is a slippery slope."

Formerly called the "Charter of Quebec values", the secularism charter known as Bill 60 would ban state employees from wearing clothing or displaying objects "that overtly indicate a religious affiliation". This includes headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans, or "larger-than-average" crucifixes.

Public institutions, Bill 60 reads, must "remain neutral in religious matters and reflect the secular nature of the State". The rules would apply to public servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, and daycare workers, among others.

The charter also bans public employees and customers receiving government services from covering their faces. While the regulations will go into force one year after the charter becomes law - with a five-year transition period in some cases - new employees of public institutions would be required to adapt to the charter immediately upon being hired.

After the bill was tabled on November 7, Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier and leader of the Parti Quebecois (PQ), the sovereigntist party that leads a minority government in Quebec, said: "It is a great moment for our society. This is a beautiful day for Quebec."

In order for the bill to become law the government must water down the legislation to win over support from opposition parties, which have so far rejected it, or wait until after the next election in hopes of securing a majority.

A divided province

A manifesto issued by Québec Inclusif against the charter now counts more than 27,500 signatures of support.

"It's unacceptable to see people bullied in the streets on the basis of their religion and their beliefs. It's also unacceptable that the government sends the message that it's okay to discriminate [against] them in their workplace," Bourget told Al Jazeera.

But not everyone in Quebec is against the proposed legislation.

"We're in favour. I think it's a very good project," said Michel Lincourt, a member of the national council of the Mouvement laïque québécois, the province's secularist movement.

Lincourt told Al Jazeera that the charter builds on decades of wrestling power away from the Catholic Church in Quebec, and that it doesn't infringe on anyone's right to practice his or her religion. Instead, he said the charter addresses the "threat" of religion seeping back into state affairs, and that it enjoys widespread support in Quebec.

"Secularism is for peace. It's for harmony. It's for a coherent society. It's for having a place where all citizens are treated equal," he said. "All citizens can go into the government, in the schools, in hospitals and so on, and be treated exactly the same way."

More than 53,800 people have reportedly signed a 2010 petition in favour of secularism in Quebec.

"Religions are fine, but outside the realm of the state," Lincourt said. "The state is not telling Muslims what to believe, but at the same time, Muslims [should] stay out of the political sphere and stay out of the affairs of the state; the same for Catholics, the same for Protestants."

Bernard Drainville, the Quebec minister who formulated the bill, had not responded to Al Jazeera's interview request by time of publication.

But the government has adamantly defended the charter since it was first unveiled. Last month, Drainville said a survey of comments on a government website showed 47 percent of Quebec residents completely supported the charter, while another 21 percent said they were in favour of it, but wanted minor changes.

"The time has come to come together around clear rules and shared values that will put an end to the tensions and misunderstandings," Drainville said in September. "Our proposals will be a source of greater understanding, harmony and cohesion for all Quebec and all Quebecers, regardless of their religion or origin."

Historical fears

For decades, the Catholic Church held unparalleled influence over Quebec society. The church retained a virtual monopoly over providing education, health and social services in the province. In 1958, 85 percent of the province considered themselves Catholic, and 88 percent of those attended church services every Sunday, according to religious studies professor Daniel Seljak.

But, beginning in 1960, the provincial government took control of most social services, and improvements were made to the economic standing of francophones, who had been discriminated against in employment and, for decades, had earned lower wages than English speakers.

Known as the "Quiet Revolution", this period is largely seen as the moment Quebec rejected conservative Catholicism, and instead embraced a gradual and natural process of secularisation.

In an open letter published by several local newspapers, Quebec television personality and author Jeannette Bertrand came out strongly in support of the charter by referring to this period of change. "We would still be under the domination of men and the clergy if the government at the time had not legislated," Bertrand wrote.

A group of prominent Quebec women calling themselves "the Jeannettes", after Bertrand, has organised protests in Montreal in support of the charter.

No proven threat

The PQ government has also defended the charter by comparing it to Quebec's language laws.

The Charter of the French Language, widely known as Bill 101, was established in 1977 and formalised French as the province's sole, official language. At the time, opponents of Bill 101 said it discriminated against English-speakers in the province. Approximately 100,000 Anglophones left Quebec in the years after the law was passed.

While certain parts of Bill 101 were overturned in federal courts as infringing on individual rights, the law's overall purpose - to protect French from perceived English dominance in the rest of Canada - was upheld as reasonable.

But according to Hugo Cyr, a professor of legal sciences at the University of Quebec at Montreal, the government can't compare the secularism charter with Bill 101, since there is no proven threat to secularism in Quebec. "As it is, in my mind, [the secularism charter is] unconstitutional. If there was a charter challenge… the courts would most probably declare the statute to be invalid," Cyr said.

He added that another major problem is that the charter embodies an "almost Catholic secularism conception" that doesn't have the same consequences for all Quebecers. "If you're Sikh, your religion actually requires you to be wearing a [religious] symbol. Those people who are a member of the Sikh religion will be impacted very differently from the Catholics," Cyr told Al Jazeera.

Quebec 'vulnerable'

In 2006, debate swirled throughout Quebec around the issue of "reasonable accommodation" for immigrants and members of religious minorities.

We feel that we're vulnerable. We feel it perhaps more essential than [in] other places to reaffirm that superiority. That's what the whole thing is about.

Daniel Salée, Concordia University

In one infamous example, a small town called Hérouxville issued a code of conduct for new residents meant to "send a message" to potential Muslim immigrants. The document originally stated, among other things, that "killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive" was not accepted in the community, and that face coverings were only allowed on Halloween.

A subsequent government-appointed inquiry into reasonable accommodation, called the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, concluded that "the foundations of collective life in Quebec are not in a critical situation", but that the province faced a "need to adapt".

According to Daniel Salée, a political science professor at Montreal's Concordia University, the debate in Quebec is not unique; rather, it is the same one many Western countries, including France, Great Britain and the United States, are having over immigration.

"It's not a question of having different values. It's a question of asserting the cultural and moral superiority of the West," Salée told Al Jazeera, adding that Quebec's insecurities over its identity as a French-speaking province have compounded the situation.

"We feel vulnerable as a French-speaking nation in a sea of English-speaking Canadians and Americans," Salée said. "We feel that we're vulnerable. We feel it perhaps more essential than [in] other places to reaffirm that superiority. That's what the whole thing is about."

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Al Jazeera
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