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Opinion

Is Canada's multiculturalism in peril?

Although the majority of Canadians are against Quebec's Charter of Values, most of them still backed banning the niqab.

Last updated: 02 Apr 2014 12:29
Safiah Chowdhury

Safiah Chowdhury is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and originally from Toronto, Canada.
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Some veiled women have faced violence after public debate over religious symbols intensified recently in Quebec, writes the author [Reuters]

Canada is widely hailed as a multicultural success state. As the first country to adopt multiculturalism as official policy, and with high rates of integration among immigrant populations, it is often looked at as a model to be followed. Recently, though, the French province of Quebec has dented this global reputation with the introduction of Bill 60, popularly known as the Quebec Charter of Values.

Boasting the notion of "state neutrality" on matters of religion, the charter seeks to limit the wearing of "ostentatious" religious symbols for all state personnel. This would essentially result in a ban on the use of Muslim veils, Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas, and any large Christian crosses, for all public employees, from civil servants to doctors and teachers.

Such provisions are considered to be specific to Quebec but a deeper look into past debates regarding religious garb suggests it is an issue facing the nation at large, calling into question how we define multiculturalism in the Canadian context.

Discrimination: A rallying point?

While the Charter of Values is applicable to a number of religious groups, much of the discourse has focused on its impact on Muslim women, particularly those who wear the headscarf. This is likely due to the frequency by which this practise occurs in a diverse province such as Quebec, meaning its impact will be much more pronounced for Muslim women choosing to cover. Added to this is the increased violence against Muslim women and the vitriolic response to a Muslim woman who died after her clothing was stuck in a subway escalator.

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What is perhaps most alarming, however, is the widespread support this charter has in Quebec, with 51 percent of Quebeckers in favour of it, with higher rates of approval among francophones. This has meant that passing the charter is the rallying point of the ruling party, the Parti Quebecois, who hope to be re-elected on April 7.

Though the charter is discriminatory, it is reassuring to see its larger unpopularity across Canada. All federal leaders have denounced the charter and the larger Canadian populace seems to find it antithetical to Canada as a hospitable and open nation that is renowned for its multiculturalist ethos. Quebec has been ridiculed in Anglo-media for giving Canada a bad international name.

This is not the first time such a law has been discussed. Bill 94, introduced in the Quebec legislature by the Quebec Liberal Party in 2010, contained provisions that were mimicked by this most recent Bill 60. Bill 94 sought to ban all people accessing state services - including employees and recipients - from wearing the niqab.

It was not as encompassing as the charter, targeting only a specific segment of Muslim women, yet it arguably came from the same logic. This logic involves state control of religious symbolism, perceiving it to be an affront to Quebecker values. Both bills, 94 and 60, problematise religiosity, positioning the state as the arbiter of what is acceptable.

Although it was similarly antithetical to Canadian values of acceptance and inclusion, Bill 94 was embraced by much of Canada. An Angus-Reid poll suggested that approximately 80 percent of Canadians across the country supported it. All federal parties and their leaders were either supportive or entirely silent about the matter, even though its constitutionality was also in question. In many ways, it was as if the Quebec Liberal Party said aloud what the rest of Canada was thinking.

Quebecker exceptionalism?

Arguably, the niqab is not like the hijab or other religious items of clothing. By covering the face, one is said to violate notions of both gender equality and safety. People have a right to see the face of the person they are communicating with. Notwithstanding the ableist rhetoric of this sentiment, it positions those wearing the niqab as both victim and threat to which the state is best suited to address. It additionally privileges our right to see them over their right to choose how to personally dress and practise their religion.

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Whether the niqab is truly mandated by Islam is also another point of difference, with most Muslims considering it outside the scope of religious requirements. The larger so-called "war on terror" rhetoric is that it is an imposed practise signalling the relegation of women by Muslim men.

While this may be the case in some instances, it would be disingenuous to extend this to all cases. Using these arguments, Bill 94 was justified both in the Quebec legislature and among the larger Canadian public.

And while the charter is legitimately decried on the basis of its discrimination and the violence it has enabled against Muslims, there seems to be little concern for how the placing of the niqab as un-Canadian has similarly led to violence against Muslims who wear it. Based on this rhetoric, it seems as though discriminating against niqab-clad women and limiting their ability to access public services is considered fair where it is not for other Muslims, Jews, or Sikhs.

If much of Canada is offended by the Charter of Values due to its meddling with people's choice of religious practise and dress, then it is curious that this does not extend to the niqab and Bill 94.

To a large degree, the same attitudes inform both. They include the belief that state neutrality on religion means it should be outside the public view and the belief that Canadian multiculturalism has its limits and that there are unacceptable forms of difference. Given that only 25 women are said to wear the niqab in Quebec, both bills exaggerate a non-issue to gain votes at the expense of minorities. Both bills stem from the same reasoning that considers certain religious practises illiberal, un-Canadian, and a threat to society. And both bills use Muslim women as the site of exploration and exploitation for these issues.

If, as one newspaper editorial put it, the space between the niqab and practises is where Canadian anxieties lie, then a revision of our prejudices is overdue.

The overwhelming acceptance Bill 94 received by the Canadian populace and politicians alike suggests that it is not only Quebec that harbours ill will towards certain religious practices, nor is it only Quebec which challenges Canada as an inclusive place for all.

At worst, the contrast in the two discourses suggests hypocrisy. At best, it implies a hierarchy of acceptability whereby the Christian crucifix is tolerable everywhere, religious symbols like the hijab, kippa, and turban are tolerable in Anglo-Canada, and the niqab is tolerable nowhere.

If, as one newspaper editorial put it, the space between the niqab and hijab is where Canadian anxieties lie, then a revision of our prejudices is overdue.

It is encouraging that most of our pundits have evolved to largely accept the hijab, but we need not pat ourselves on the back just yet. The hesitancy, concern and fear the niqab evokes begs the question, who is included in "Canadian multiculturalism" and who is excluded? This implicates both English- and French-speaking components of Canada as well as Canadian multiculturalism overall.

While Canada is far ahead of its European counterparts in actualising multiculturalism, much work remains. The invocations of Canada as a pluralist state, proud of its diversity, suggests that these principles are held dearly. However, even if the charter ends with the April 7 election, there remain essential questions about how multiculturalism is defined and for whom it applies.

If the Charter of Values is appalling, any provision seeking to ban any form of religious clothing should evoke similar alarm. The freedom of choice, conscience and religion ought to apply even to minorities within a minority.

However, if it is believed that certain, distinctly religious practises ought to be banned as they are antithetical to Canadian values, then our understanding and boasting of Canadian multiculturalism requires serious revision. This applies to all of Canada, not just Quebec.  

Safiah Chowdhury is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and originally from Toronto, Canada.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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