Q&A: Quebec minister defends religious ban

Parti Quebecois wants to keep religious clothing such as turbans, yarmulkes and big crosses out of the public workplace.

Drainville's bill has divided Quebec residents, who are evenly split among those for and against it [Reuters]

Quebec, Canada – Earlier in November, a separatist party in Quebec proposed a law that would ban public employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. The Parti Quebecois introduced the formerly titled “Charter of Quebec values”. The secularism charter now 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.

The prohibitions would apply to civil servants, teachers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses and public day-care employees. The bill would further prohibit citizens from covering their faces while receiving public services, such as applying for driver’s licences, for the purpose of identification.

Recent polls, however, show the proposal has so far divided the Canadian province’s population, with Quebecers evenly split among those for and against it – and opponents saying it discriminates against religious minorities.

Bernard Drainville is a member of the National Assembly of Quebec for Marie-Victorin and the minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship. Al Jazeera spoke to Drainville, who introduced the charter and defends the bill, saying that although it is a “sensitive issue… it is a passionate debate, but it is a necessary debate”.

Al Jazeera: Why at this point in Quebec was it necessary to introduce the idea of this legislation?

Bernard Drainville: In 2007, there was what we called in Quebec the religious accommodation crisis. There were several stories of religious accommodations that raised a great deal of controversies. Some of these religious accommodations were perceived as unreasonable. A commission was created by the previous government to deal with it, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, and they issued a report. Nothing was done with this report; it was basically shelved. We were in opposition then and we made a commitment that if we were ever in government, we were going to deal with it by bringing about a framework of rules to deal with these religious accommodations in the future, and to ensure that equality between men and women would never be undermined by religious accommodation in the future.

From a historical perspective, Quebec was a very religious society for a very long time. In the 1960s we decided as a society to separate the Catholic Church from the state. We basically decided to become a secular state. And I suppose what we are doing with the charter is the logical extension of this decision made in the 1960s. Today we are saying if it was good for the Catholic Church in the 60s, it should be good for all religions today.

AJ: I saw the graphic you released, things that are allowed and things that are not allowed for public servants to wear… How did these decisions get made in the run-up to that?

Drainville: We went with this definition of “very ostentatious signs” or very visible signs. We were not comfortable banning every little sign, we thought this was going too far, so we went for the very visible, very demonstrative religious signs and we used the definition that the French gave to the law they used to ban religious signs in the classroom in public schools… So that means these signs that send a very clear religious message will not be allowed, but those signs that are worn very discreetly, whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish signs, we think they belong to the private sphere.

AJ: So if you view your religious faith as requiring you to wear one of those symbols that are banned, the public sector is closed to you?

Drainville: Let’s take the veil for example. We know of a few documented cases of women who wear the veil and who accept to withdraw their veil while they’re working with children in a public school or public kindergarten or daycare. So we think it is possible for someone who is very religious to accept that working for your fellow citizens within the public service entails certain obligations and certain responsibilities. And some women who wear the veil, even though it’s not required by the law, they already accept taking it off before getting into the classroom, for example. So we think if it is possible for these women to do it, that should tell us it’s possible for others as well, who will eventually be required by law to do it. The other thing that needs to be kept in mind: Our statistics and experts overall will say that around 20 percent of women of Muslim faith living in Quebec wear the veil. So the vast majority do not wear one. …

The other thing to remember is that a lot of women who came to Quebec, particularly from Northern Africa – from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia – came here because they were looking for equality. So we think that a lot of these women will be supportive, or are supportive, of what we are proposing because this is precisely the reason they came to Quebec.

AJ: Isn’t your job to unify, and hasn’t this caused some division?

Drainville says the province has been neglecting the issue ‘for far too long’  [Al Jazeera]

Drainville: Yes, it is a sensitive issue, yes, it is a passionate debate, but it is a necessary debate. We’ve been neglecting this debate, we’ve been trying to ignore it for far too long. This debate has been in the air for far too long and nothing happened, no solution has been put forward. Yes it is sensitive, yes it is passionate but once this law is voted, once we have this framework of rules, once we have asserted that equality between men and women is not negotiable in Quebec, once we have established that religious neutrality, I think harmony and cohesion will be the ultimate result.

The debate we are having in Quebec these days is about multiculturalism. And it’s a debate that’s occurred in France, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Scandinavia, Denmark had a debate on that. Quebec is not the only place in the world where we are debating the place of religion within the society and how religions should interact with the state. Multiculturalism is a very, very hot issue in many parts of the world.

AJ: Will it survive court challenges and Quebec’s own charter of rights, Canada’s Charter of Rights?

Drainville: We may face certain legal challenges once it’s voted, although any law can be challenged. So this bill, if it’s ever adopted, could face legal challenges but we think the legal foundations of the bill are solid, are strong. We are amending the Quebec charter of rights to strengthen the legal foundation for the Charter. Notwithstanding what could happen once the bill is passed, if it is ever passed, the time has come for Quebec’s parliament to speak on this and make a decision. This decision belongs first and foremost to the citizens of Quebec and their representatives sitting in Quebec’s parliament… I say that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience will be better protected by what we are proposing. This may sound ludicrous to some people, but the best way to protect every religion is to have a state that has no religion. 

Source: Al Jazeera