Controversy over the rights of religious and cultural minorities has once again taken centre stage in Quebec ever since the minority Parti Quebecois (PQ) government of Pauline Marois declared its intention to introduce a Charter of Quebec Values. Purporting to strengthen the separation of church and state, the Charter would outlaw ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols or clothing worn by government workers and in public institutions such as primary schools and daycares. This would target women wearing the hijab (head scarf) and extend as well to the Sikh turban and possibly even to the Jewish kippah.
The numerous Christian crosses that dot the Quebec landscape, including the large crucifix hanging in the National Assembly and the giant illuminated cross atop Mont Royal overlooking Montreal, would be exempted on the grounds of belonging to the province’s ‘patrimonie’ or cultural heritage.
The proposed charter has split the population down the middle with 43% in favour and 42% opposed according to one poll. Support for the charter is seemingly on the rise especially outside of multi-ethnic Montreal. However, there is strong opposition from diverse quarters including important women’s organizations.
September 14 saw a demonstration in Montreal of over 20,000 against the bill organized by an ad hoc Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia. The Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF, Council on the Status of Women) expressed grave concern that the charter would further marginalize muslim women. The Marois government is now trying to reverse that position by packing the CSF with its own appointees.
The Charter is supported by the provincial government employees’ union, but the large union centrals, the FTQ, the CSN and the largest teachers’ union, the CSQ, have so far remained non-committal. The union leaders are caught between rejecting clearly discriminatory legislation and their traditional loyalty to the PQ.
The federalist forces in Quebec are all opposed to the Charter. This includes the provincial Liberal Party and the three federalist parties representing Quebec in Ottawa, the New Democratic Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Party of Canada.
Passage of the Bill in the National Assembly will depend on whether the PQ can get support from the right wing populist Coaltion Avenir Quebec (CAQ). Thus far, the CAQ wants restrictive dress codes applied to higher civil servants only. But it will have its eye on the polls and its position could shift.
Reaction in English speaking Canada has been entirely predictable. There, the media and a wide swath of politicians have worked themselves into quite a self-righteous lather about the alleged superiority of Canadian multi-culturalism over backward Quebecois ethnic nationalism.
The left wing party, Quebec Solidaire, with two deputies in the National Assembly, opposes the Charter from the standpoint of “laicité ouverte”. That means separation of church and state, yes, but not to the extent of dictating clothes and ornaments worn by public employees.
Noteworthy is the opposition the PQ charter has provoked from within the nationalist and sovereignist camp. The Bloc Quebecois (the sovereignist counterpart of the PQ in the federal arena) expelled one of its five MPs because she had publicly criticized the repressive aspects of the Charter. Jean Dorion, a respected sovereignist who was a Bloc MP and a former President of the nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society, describes the PQ initiative as a gift to the federalists. Likewise, sovereignist intellectual Michel Seymour termed the PQ approach to immigrant minorities shameful and saluted Quebec Solidaire for opposing the Charter.
A petition entitled “For an inclusive Quebec” has garnered over 12,000 signatures including many supporters of independence. The authors of the petition refer to the “staggeringly high unemployment rate among Quebec immigrants” and go on to point out that: “ a ban on religious symbols in public service, schools and daycares would…further exclude immigrants from the Quebec labour market …increase the vulnerability of women wearing the hijab and exacerbate inequalities between men and women.” This in a nutshell is the refutation to the PQ’s claim that it is promoting social cohesion and defending women’s equality.
Hitherto, opposition to the xenophobic tendencies in Quebec society has rested on defense of individual rights and cultural pluralism. This is the position, for example, to be found in the report of Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor in their 2008 report on ‘reasonable accommodation’ of immigrant communities in the province. Missing in this stance is any consideration of the fragile identity of the Quebecois as a small national minority within a vast English speaking North America.
The problem of overcoming Quebec’s national oppression is key to building an inclusive society for immigrants. In former times the PQ leadership stressed its commitment to ‘civic nationalism’. This concept lay behind the introduction of mandatory French schooling for children of new immigrants to Quebec. The result is a much more diverse francophone population. Now, the PQ is trying to rehabilitate a retrograde ethnic nationalism. Ironically those targeted by its new legislation predominantly would be women who are French speaking!
It might be countered that all nationalisms promote chauvinism and sow division. Indeed, some socialist currents reject the struggle for Quebec independence on that basis. But precisely because Marxists uphold the highest standards of internationalism, they must take up the cause of oppressed peoples whose national development is thwarted to one degree or another by the capitalist order. That continues to apply to Quebec, in our view.
Socialists should welcome this most recent crisis of perspectives in Quebec`s sovereignist movement and pay close attention to how it unfolds. But not as do the federalists (and some on the left) who oppose an independent Quebec. To the contrary, we agree with those who say the PQ`s racist gambit weakens the fight for national liberation. Our perspective is for a political party rooted in a revitalized labour movement which advances a program for independence and socialism.
The PQ`s Charter of Quebec Values should be defeated for the following reasons:
– firstly, it punishes women coming from conservative patriarchal cultures while ignoring the sexism rampant in more ‘modern’ capitalist societies. These issues will be settled by women themselves and not by state dictat.
– secondly, some supporters of the Charter are motivated by anti-clericalism. Quebec only recently emerged from the domination of the Roman Catholic Church. Against all evidence, these people are haunted by the spectre of regression. Where this is not a mask for islamophobia, it is based on a faulty understanding of religious belief and its social role (cf. Marx`s often misinterpreted discussion of religion as the ‘opium of the people’).
– thirdly, the premise of shared values in a class society like Quebec is an oxymoron. Irreconcilable differences exist on every front from university tuition fees to fossil fuel exploitation and transport. The values discourse is an attempt to create a phony consensus to help maintain social order.
– finally, socialists want to deepen the unity of the working class by recognizing oppression within its ranks as well as in society, and by building solidarity. Defense of the most vulnerable sections of our class is not just a question of justice (although it is certainly that) but is also an important strategic principle.