A tiny crucifix around the neck is fine and so is a small ring with the star of David or a little earring with a religious symbol.
But the Quebec government of Premier Pauline Marois proposes to prohibit the wearing of “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols by government employees—from judges right down to a day care worker.
And it wants to make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered while providing or receiving a state service.
Quebec will also try to shield its new Charter of Quebec Values from legal challenges by entrenching the concept of religious neutrality in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The whole package will be included in a bill to be tabled this fall in the National Assembly, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville said Tuesday, tabling the Parti Québécois government’s long-awaited proposal to create Quebec’s first-ever Charter of Values.
“The time has come to rally around our common values,” Drainville said at a news conference Tuesday. “They define who we are. Let’s be proud of them.”
Long-awaited and the subject of several leaks, Drainville’s proposal was surprisingly detailed, including graphics showing the kinds of religious symbols the government will allow for its employees.
Defining what is conspicuous could rapidly become a problem but the government plan does not include a formal measuring system.
For example, regulations to apply Quebec’s French Language Charter include a definition of what Quebec considers “marked predominance” on letters on signs.
But while the package does not address that question, the measures are, however, sweeping. If adopted, Quebec will “limit” the wearing of conspicuous symbols by state employees from the top down.
That includes personnel with power to impose sanctions, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers and correctional agents. Public and private daycare workers would have the same restrictions as would school board personnel in the elementary and high school system, plus in CEGEPs and universities.
The same goes in the public health and social services networks.
But as foreseen, Quebec plans to proceed softly down the path of state secularism by allowing for opting out.
In the case of CEGEPs, universities and municipalities, the board of directors or municipal council could adopt a resolution allowing its personnel to wear religious symbols.
“This authorization would be valid for a period of up to five years and renewable,” the government’s documents state. “It would not apply to the obligation of having one’s face uncovered.”
Making the pitch for the measures, Drainville said the package is based on fundamental Quebec values, including the equality of men and women.
“The time has come for us to rally around clear rules and common values which will put an end to tensions and misunderstandings,” Drainville said in a statement.
“Our proposals will be a source of better understanding, harmony and cohesion for all Quebecers, regardless of their religion or origin.”
Not all forms of secularism would be equal, however.
The giant crucifix above Montreal’s Mount Royal—and the one above the Speaker’s chair of the legislature—will be spared under the logic that they are integral to Quebec’s cultural history: “The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage,” Drainville said.
Employees who wear a visible crucifix, however, will have to tuck them away. As would those wearing hijabs, burkas, kippas, veils and turbans.
Drainville grappled with questions about other inconsistencies.
Would elected officials be subject to this? No, he replied, arguing that people have a right to choose their representative. Which means that people could, in theory, elect a cabinet minister or premier with a hijab—who would then force employees to remove theirs.
Would elected officials and courtroom witnesses in this staunchly secular state continue to swear an oath on that most non-secular of documents, the Bible? Drainville appeared caught off-guard by the question: “Oh, my God,” he replied, slowly, “we’ll get back to you.”
Earlier, Drainville symbolically turned over copies of the proposal to Marois in a staged photo opportunity at her office.
The product of five years of internal debate in the PQ, the charter was a key element in the party’s election platform as it tried to make mileage off the identity card.
But it was the subject of instant criticism as a proposal that would divide Quebec and might even be unconstitutional. Marois has said she believes the plan will be legal and Quebec will not need to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Polls, on the other hand, showed Quebecers in favour of the package, fuelling the PQ’s drive to charge ahead.
The government’s failure to cash in on the other identity issue of the platform, beefing up the French Language Charter, provided further incentive.
At a PQ caucus meeting in Carleton-sur-mer two weeks ago, Marois said the values charter would be one of the government’s three policy pillars this fall.
Drainville, on the other hand, has said he plans to go slowly and wants a serene debate.
He plans to hold public consultations but not in the same form as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which roamed the province, sparking clashes and nasty headlines.
Drainville plans to borrow a system Diane De Courcy used to consult Quebecers on Bill 14: Quebecers will be invited to submit their opinion online.
In that way, Drainville can avoid costs and criticism from the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec that the PQ is using taxpayer money to pay for what amounts to a pre-election campaign swing through the province.
But the issue will collide with Quebec’s electoral schedule as the days of Marois’ minority government run down.
In that case, the bill may never be passed.
It requires the support of the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec. So far the CAQ has been the most open to discussion, presenting a similar package which does not go quite so far.
The Liberals, however, favour open secularism, which means while they believe the state should be neutral, they do not want to see religious headgear and symbols banned.
The values charter poses a dilemma for federal politicians, notably the New Democrats under Tom Mulcair, who count on Quebecers for support.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has denounced Quebec’s proposed charter of values as completely unacceptable.
At the NDP’s caucus retreat in Saskatoon, Mulcair said that the proposed text released today in Montreal confirms the party’s worst fears.
Mulcair said he rejects the Quebec government’s approach categorically, saying human rights don’t have a best-before date and they’re not a popularity contest.
He said it’s unacceptable to think that a woman worker wearing a head scarf in a daycare centre will lose her job.
Mulcair had faced criticism for not immediately coming out against the charter when details first began leaking out weeks ago.
He was criticized for pandering to popular sentiment in Quebec, where the charter idea is popular and which accounts for 57 of the NDP’s 100 MPs, including Mulcair.
The Conservative government says it would mount a legal challenge against the new charter of Quebec values if it was deemed to violate religious freedoms.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney, who also oversees multicultural policy, says that if the Quebec proposals become law, they will be reviewed by the federal Justice Department.
Kenney also accuses the Parti Quebecois government of trying to pick a fight with the federal government while most people are more concerned about jobs and the economy.
The values charter seeks to emphasize the separation of church and state in all public institutions by banning the wearing of obvious religious symbols on the job.
Kenney and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel were uncharacteristically terse when asked to react to the proposals.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau accused Marois of playing “identity politics” with the proposed charter.
“Mme. Marois has a plan, has an agenda, she’s trying to play divisive identity politics because it seems to be the only thing that is able to distract from the serious economic challenges that we’re facing as a province and as a country,” he said.
“Quebecers will…. push back very hard at this charter that is aiming at dividing people rather than building a better future for all,” Trudeau said.
Federal parties have had to grapple with how to respond to the values charter, in the face of what appears to be significant support for the concept in certain areas of the province.
Montreal mayoral candidates Denis Coderre and Marcel Cote were also unsparing in their criticism.