A controversial values charter that would ban wearing religious symbols in the public sector could threaten the province of Québec's minority rights, if Parti Québécois voters have their way at the polls today.
The left-wing separatist party Parti Québécois’s Bill 60 — also known as the Charter of Values — would ban public servants, including teachers, doctors and bureaucrats, from wearing any religious symbols at work. This would include a ban on symbols like the hijab, yarmulkes or large crucifixes.
The PQ’s leader, Pauline Marois, affirms the bill is necessary to protect core Québec values by defining state secularism and gender equality.
“To recognize secularism as a Québec value is to take cognizance of the evolution of a people which, for the past half century, has become increasingly secular and has taken the confessional character out of its institutions,” Marois said at a PQ rally in August.
Québec operates under a slightly different paradigm of inter-culturalism, which is different from the rest of Canada. The province’s inter-culturalism has the values of Québécois culture, with French language at the center. Immigrants to the province whose mother tongue isn’t English are legally forced to attend French language schools. In contrast, Canada’s multiculturalism is a plural approach that celebrates different cultures, and treats all cultures and languages in other provinces equally. Unlike Québec, no one culture or language takes precedence over the other across the rest of Canada.
But critics say Bill 60 infringes on certain provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as freedom of expression and religion. Québec never formally approved the charter, which has created long-standing political issues in the province. Some say this is because the premier of the time, PQ leader René Lévesque, was more concerned with Québec’s secession from Canada than cooperating with other premiers and the federal government. Others say it was because the charter instilled national values for all provinces and refused to distinguish Québec as a distinct society.
In September, thousands of protestors lined the streets in Montréal. Protests included non-religious demonstrators from many members of the Muslim and Sikh communities. Protestors carried signs calling the charter “politics of division,” while chants of “charter of shame” rang through the crowd.
Thousands of protesters, mostly Muslims, marched through downtown Montreal on September 14, 2013 to rally against a plan to ban public sector workers from wearing religious garbs.
But critics say Bill 60 infringes on certain provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as freedom of expression and religion. In September, thousands of protestors lined the streets in Montréal. Protests included non-religious demonstrators from many members of the Muslim and Sikh communities. Protestors carried signs calling the charter “politics of division,” while chants of “charter of shame” rang through the crowd.
Marois’ PQ was gaining support in the past month, but things started to change when the conversation subtly shifted from the polarizing values charter to the sensitive question of separation from Canada. When Québec media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau joined the PQ and established his candidacy in the Saint-Jérome riding, he made a statement that changed the tone of the elections to a conversation about separatism.
“My connection to the PQ is a connection rooted in my deepest, most intimate values, and that is making Québec a country,” he said at a news conference on March 9 announcing his candidacy.
This movement put the election in the Québec Liberal Party’s favor. Professor Marc A. Bodet, an assistant professor of Political Science at Université Laval in Québec City, says a party is almost always guaranteed to win when the core issue of a campaign becomes identity.
“There’s been very little discussion about education, very little about health policy, not much about how to fight poverty,” Bodet told VICE News in regards to the overall tone of the campaign from all parties. “This campaign was all about the question of the future of Québec or its place in the Canadian federation.”
Led by Phillipe Couillard, the Québec Liberal Party supports a Québec that’s united with Canada, but still with a certain degree of autonomy as a province.
In a sense, Bodet says the election was made for the Liberals. Péladeau’s comment shifted the campaign to a conversation about separatism.
“If it’s about identity or nationalism, they know they can mobilize their people. Liberal voters tend to be much older than voters for other parties. These over 65-year-olds vote all the time systematically, while younger voters don’t,” he said.
This is because the Liberal Party has a strong core of support, and are guaranteed about 35-40 out of 125 seats in the provincial legislature. Their supporters are the English speaking community, immigrants, federalists, and older French-Canadian voters who still see the idea of Canada as a bi-lingual, bi-cultural nation. And most importantly, because they have a much older electorate, they can be mobilized to vote.
In terms of separatism, the Liberal Party points to the fact that support hasn’t really progressed in a significant way for an independent Québec.
Bodet says while that is true, 35-40 percent of Quebec residents over the last 30 years have consistently wanted to leave Canada. So while that support hasn’t increased, that significant portion still exists.
The campaign flared even further when Liberal Party leader Couillard criticized the controversial values charter as an “instrument of division” for PQ to create tension with the Canadian government, to make separatism more attractive to voters.
“This is totally unacceptable. I have never seen something as despicable as this, politically,” Couillard told the Toronto Star.
This kind of back and forth between the PQ and the Liberals is nothing new in Québec politics, and it’s been impacting how Quebeckers vote.
“All I saw was the Liberal party pointing at the PQ and saying, ‘You want to hold a referendum’ over and over to avoid talking about real issues, while Marois from PQ was giving everyone the same pre-recorded answers for every question,” said Marc Rémillard, a Montréal resident. “Two really old parties with really old fights.”
Rémillard says he’ll be voting for Québec Solidaire, a left-wing separatist party formed in 2006, which as of Thursday held 13 percent of the vote in an Ipsos-Reid poll collected for CTV. He says Québec Solidaire is attractive for their electoral reform and sovereignty promises. He wants to give the party his vote to ensure future growth.
Maxim Boucher is from Chicoutimi-Nord, a town five hours north of Montréal. He has long supported the PQ, an is a separatist voting for Marois’ party. But he says what’s been difficult for Marois’ campaigns are the statement Péladeau made.
“The other parties continued to repeat this declaration, even though Marois didn’t even speak about sovereignty herself one time during the campaign,” he said. “It’s turned this into a very hostile smear campaign. This is not the kind of campaign that I like.”
It’s worth noting that the rest of Canada would likely not approve the values charter because of the Multiculturalism Act, which seeks to encourage multiculturalism in Canada. It became a law in 1988, making Canada one of the first countries to adopt such a policy. Many in Québec object to one of the act’s two fundamental principles: “All citizens are created equal and have the freedom to preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage.”
Because many in Québec see the province as one of the two founding nations of Canada, equating all subcultures to be the same does not sit well with them.
Where Does Quebec Stand in Canada?
Québec nationalism was awakened at the end of “La Grande Noirceur,” or “The Great Darkness.” Up until 1960, the province was a deeply Roman Catholic and conservative society. In 1960 — a period called “La Révolution Tranquille,” or “The Quiet Revolution” — the province quickly moved to the political left. Schools were no longer under church control, political ties with France were strengthened, and a social-democratic welfare state was created. Then French president Charles de Gaulle shouted “Vive le Québec libre!” in 1967 from the balcony of his Montréal hotel room during a speech, which clearly offended the government of Canada.
In one of the highest voting turnouts in Québec history in 1976, 41.4 percent of voters elected the PQ as the majority government, less than 10 years after the party’s founding. The party held its first referendum on separatism, called Sovereignty-Association, which was rejected by 60 percent of the electorate. Support for separatism effectively died after this referendum. But two failed constitutional accords, in 1987 and 1992, which tried to cement Québec as a constitutionally distinct society, revived support for sovereignty in Québec since no agreement about its unique place in Canada was agreed upon.The federal separatist party, the Bloc Québécois, was born out of these two constitutional failures and it then could advance Québec’s separatism message on the national stage.
When the PQ returned to power in 1995 with 44.75 percent of the popular vote, it held another referendum asking if voters agree that Québec should become sovereign, after making a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership. This time, those voting for Québec to become separate lost by less than one percent.
This back-and-forth about a referendum to separate, and Québec’s place in Canada, has been exhausting for voters.
In the past it has resulted in voter fatigue, which leads to low turn out. That in turn has become a useful tool for the Liberal Party to mobilize its core older voters. In the last three elections, the Liberals received roughly the same amount of votes in total, but managed to form a minority government in 2007, a majority government in 2008 and it became the official opposition to a minority PQ government in 2012. Bodet says the 2008 majority government was born out of a major drop in overall turnout that year. But identity will continue to dominate the agenda until some kind of resolution is found.
“There are a lot of people who feel the next referendum will be the last — so you want to have the referendum when you’re sure to win it,” said Bodet. “The window of separation is closing — the people who could be motivated by the question of separation are getting older, and the replacement rate is not there.”
Flickr Photo via Segacs