The Quebec Government's Plan to Ban Religious Symbols May Be a Stroke of Political Genius

By Joel Balsam


The Charter could ban religious symbols at public institutions, but this huge cross on Mount Royal in Montreal is OK? Image via Flickr

Last week the Journal de Montreal dropped a bomb on Quebec’s extremely shaky sense of identity by publishing leaked details from the upcoming Charter of Quebec Values set to be released in the fall. Apparently, the government plans to ban employees of public institutions like schools, hospitals and daycares from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs, kippas, crucifixes, or anything else “conspicuously religious.”

We’ve seen Quebec take on religion before, particularly between March 2006 and June 2007 when the province went bat-shit crazy over whether a Sikh could wear his ceremonial knife—called a kirpan—to school, or if Orthodox Jews were going too far by asking the YMCA to frost its windows so they wouldn’t have to see half-naked women provocatively scissoring along on the elliptical. The leader of a minor party called the Action Démocratique du Quebec blew the lid way off this so-called reasonable accommodations debate when he said pure laine (literally pure wool, but actually meaning descendents of original French settlers) Quebecers cannot defend their identity “on bended knee.”

The people showed their anger in true Canadian fashion by sending thousands of letters to politicians and the media, which resulted in the other true Canadian way of dealing with things: a multimillion dollar commission asking why people are so angry.

The commission found that Quebecers do believe they are different and don’t necessarily buy into the Canadian idea of a “cultural mosaic” where different cultures come together to form a beautiful piece of stone on a fancy pathway or whatever. That’s not the way things are for Quebec’s colonial father, France, where laïcité (secularism) has been inscribed into law since 1905, and as of two years ago, you can’t even wear a full-face veil in public.

In an attempt to make some sense of this craziness, I called up political-science professor Bruce Hicks in Montreal to ask him why the Quebec government is regurgitating the same old xenophobia.

VICE: What is your take on this Charter of Quebec Values leak?
Bruce Hicks:
Governments don’t always leak the truth, they often leak trial balloons or leaked information that is worse than what will be in the document, so that once it gets unveiled the public is prepared for it.

Why would the PQ do this?
In terms of government policy, I think it’s about polarizing the debate to win votes. There is no possible way a document like that can get through a minority National Assembly, so why bother? And the only reason to bother is to inflame people, and by inflaming and dividing them you then can hopefully put together enough votes to get a majority government that will get the document you genuinely want.

So do you think this was strategically leaked?
There’s an old joke that says governments only ship the leaks from the top. It’s very rare something this important gets leaked unless it’s for strategic purposes. So the question is: What are the strategic purposes? One of the purposes could be to get everyone excited about an imagined threat, and then when you bring in the document it’s much milder, and everyone is willing to accept it. Or, it’s the real document, and you are trying to get the debate going to divert the attention from something else. Currently, the PQ has had a few stumbles since taking office. Having a debate on this is easier than having a debate on the economy or some of the other things that aren’t going exactly the way that is ideally suited for the government.

That’s sort of a genius move. In the end do you believe this charter is just a way to get votes like the ADQ did in 2007?
If what is leaked is an indication of what’s going to be in it—even in a toned-down version—then yes, this is about playing the game that the ADQ did before—and that is trying to tap into a certain xenophobia. At the very least, it shows the triumph of the ethnic nationalists in the PQ party over the civic nationalists, which may be a good thing for those who don’t want independence, because as long as the PQ panders to ethnic nationalism as opposed to trying to build a coalition, it’s not going to get 50 percent +1 of the population, let alone a clear majority… That is what the Supreme Court says they’d have to get.

Why do they think xenophobia is good for votes? I mean, there was a huge media storm about the soccer turban ban with the Sikhs, which I don’t think made the PQ look very good. Guess they weren’t scared off by that.
Here’s the reality of first-past-the-post politics—the way that ridings are distributed in Quebec, it encourages this sort of politics because you can sacrifice some seats in Montreal in exchange for winning the greater number of seats in Quebec City and all the rural areas of Quebec. The rural areas are places where people have lived in isolation, where you are going to have a disproportionate level of “pure wool” Quebecers who have lived there for generations. Most might have been exposed to a few immigrants. Maybe there’s a Chinese restaurant. But by and large, they and their friends and their community are very isolated, so there’s a distrust and xenophobia already there that the PQ can capitalize on.

So you’re saying they’re more racist in rural Quebec?
We learn our tolerance because we get exposed—that’s the whole argument that the gay community uses for people to come out, right? If people know that their friends and neighbors and family members are gay, then they are going to learn tolerance.

So if you live in a community and you have friends who are of different races, different religions, and different ethnicities, odds are you are going to be much more tolerant. We see intolerance at higher levels in rural areas, and that’s directly proportioned to the amount of immigrants who are in that specific area.

You often have this bizarre situation where towns that a Sikh would never set foot in are banning turbans... Why? Well, because it’s playing to a prejudice and they are seeing on their TV sets stuff that is happening in other communities, so they’re reacting to a crisis that isn’t actually there. But, from the PQ point of view we are talking about a government of a province that is very multicultural, so the only reason you would want to play the intolerance card is to divide.

Why do you even need a Charter for a group’s values in the first place?
When it comes to a Charter for Quebec Values there is a legitimate argument for why the PQ would want such a document, a nondraconian document like that one that’s being talked about now. When the whole nationalism movement for Quebec independence arose, it was very much an ethnic nationalism. It revolved around an identity that to be a real Quebecer you had to trace your history back hundreds of years to the original settlers of New France and it’s only these “pure wool” Quebecers who were true Quebecers. But obviously you can’t win an independence vote with only those people on your side. So over time the PQ has reconstructed the nationalistic argument to be about civic nationalism, so it’s no longer about if you’re white and of French dissent, but that you embrace a bunch of values that are shared among a distinct society. What seems to have taken over that debate though is this “reasonable accommodation” debate that is going on in Quebec and sadly, based on what was leaked this week, it seems that instead of defining who we are and what we share in terms of ethnic values it’s going to be a list of things that we can’t do.

If this does get to a higher stage will it be held up legally or will the federal government just say it’s illegal?
If it does get through the nation assembly then yes, it becomes a challenge before the courts and that’s not necessarily a fight that the PQ wouldn’t enjoy. Having the Supreme Court strike down laws is something that PQ governments in the past have used quite effectively to point to and say: “Look, federal institutions don’t work. They’re trying to take away our values and what are we talking about? It’s got the word values built in, so the federal Supreme Court is preventing us from setting our own rules for our own society.” And then it becomes an argument for independence. It could also be strategic fight-picking with an eye toward winning an election as well as independence.

This sort of thing already seems to be working in France. Do you know if the PQ is looking to France as a guide?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say as it actually works in France because France has very divisive politics. You occasionally have political leaders who appear on the extreme right and want to ban all immigrants, so there is a xenophobic element that is taking place in France. But I know what you mean when you talk about it working because the secularization of France has been rather effective, right? And Quebec itself is pretty much a secular society. Although the majority is of the Catholic faith there are very few who actually practice it the way they did when the church controlled their lives.

So, there’s a desire for secularism in society, too—it’s just how you handle it. Banning religious artifacts in the public sphere is workable, but preventing people from having certain employment is a question of how far you go. It used to be you couldn’t have a turban in the RCMP, so Sikhs couldn’t serve as RCMP officers. Eventually they made certain accommodations for that, and I don’t think anybody looks at that now and says: “Oh this is introducing religion into a police organization.” It’s all about how the government manages it and manages the debate.

Tweet at Joel about religions icons: @JoelBalsam

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