observations and opinion
Quebec’s separatist party government, led by Premier Pauline Marois, has loudly introduced draft rules to forbid public employees from wearing some (but not all) forms of attire representative of their religious affiliation. This helpful government poster shows what’s permitted and what would be forbidden:
The alleged purpose of this new, Orwellian named “Values Charter” is to defend the primacy of secularism from the dangers of religion. Or something. This proposed law has garnered support among Quebeckers polled. Here’s what Global News found about it:
Most non-Quebecois Canadians surveyed oppose the suggestion. But there’s some variation between regions: 44 per cent of Albertans like the law, a quarter of them strongly. So do 40 per cent of Ontarians. Almost two-thirds of respondents in Manitoba and Saskatchewan oppose it.
Support also varies by age, although not enough to tip the balance in Quebec: 56 per cent of people aged 18-34 like the law, compared to 24 per cent of their peers elsewhere in Canada.
Respondents with more education were less likely to like the ban, although it still wins over 58 per cent of university-educated respondents in Quebec.
The poll reveals sizable divisions between Quebec and the rest of Canada over whether public servants should be allowed to wear turbans and hijabs.
But they were closer to the same page on other faith-based wear: 68 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec say people in the public service shouldn’t be allowed to wear kirpans, the ceremonial knives carried by observant Sikhs. Two-thirds of ROC respondents would also ban burqas (full-body Muslim veils).
(90 per cent of Quebecers would ban burkas from public workers at work; 84 would do the same for the kirpan)
Those last numbers tell us something: people are prepared to say out loud that they don’t like the kirpan (the Sikh stick-pin blade) and they really hate the niqab and burqa. On the knife thing, well, almost anything when wielded with passion can be a deadly weapon, and I am unaware of how many times a Canadian Sikh has actually used his kirpan in anger. I am less blase about the all-body enveloping burqa and niqab – they are creepy, and I suspect that the people who are uncomfortable looking at them can hardly imagine the life reality of the uncomfortable people wearing them, at their fathers’ and husbands’ behest. ( My own view of the burqa and niqab is that they are lightweight, mobile prisons – they even have bars across the window.)
So sentiment against the unusual, and sometimes extreme, manifestations of foreign culture runs deep in Western countries. There is a real “value” in reminding Canadians (including Quebeckers) that we owe our entire civilization to an enlightened, liberal tradition. We expect to see your face. We say women are equal to men and most of the time, most of us mean it.
But the truth is, we aren’t meeting Ministry of Transport workers in full-on burqas very often, and doctors wearing the chador or turbans are just as smart, just as scientific and just as useful as doctors who do not. The religious attire or jewellery worn by people in daily life has virtually no negative effect on anyone else in society; indeed, to the extent we see people honouring their personal beliefs or traditions through such displays, we are reminded of our essential egalitarianism and pluralism.
Pluralism, however, is antithetical to race-based historical political movements. The Parti Quebecois exists to house nationalist, separatist sentiment and to keep it alive, sheltered from the harsh winds of reality. Having slithered into government on the backs of pot-banging, spoiled tuition-resenting students last year, the PQ is desperately casting about for ways to divide Quebec society and aggregate enough votes to stay in power. The PQ wants to remind people who are “pure” Quebeckers and who are not; to foment the ire of the “us” against the “them.” There are two primary purposes in this:
The fact that a political party is prepared to corner a small minority of the population, label them alien and actually pass laws targeting them for what they wear, might sound shocking to you, if you (a) never studied any history, ever, and/or (b) don’t remember Jacques Parizeau’s immortal explanation for why he lost the 1995 referendum (“it was the money and the ethnic vote.”) The easiest thing in the world to do is point a finger at someone who looks different, and blame them for whatever your problems are. Surely we can all think of an example or two?
The brilliance of the “Values Charter” is that it not only exploits some revolting sentiments (ignorance and racism) but it also taps into a real and widely felt unease that our unifying cultural traits are diminishing. Canadians have a lurking, inherent sense that there is something “Canadian” worth preserving, worth committing to, worth defending if necessary. And of course, they’re right.
I am quite prepared to say that everyone who comes to Canada should swear or affirm loyalty to the Sovereign. I would be pleased to see our democratic, egalitarian tradition made part of such a “pledge of allegiance.” I would make the acceptance of full human rights, in particular the rights of women to complete unfettered liberty and opportunity, something that every new Canadian has to publicly adopt as a creed, in order to move here. Hell, maybe even to stay here. Any clothing which covers a person’s face is inherently hostile and alien to our culture, and should be forbidden (that would include hoodies) except when the temperature demands it to prevent frostbite. (On this you get lots of “but why draw the line there?” talk and to that I would say simply, “because a person’s face is part of her identity, and no-one should be permitted or required to hide it.” It’s really not that complicated). And I would make human rights (read: female rights) a required part of the curriculum of every school, public or private).
As I said, Canadians have a lurking, inherent sense that there is something “Canadian” worth preserving. But it is obviously not white skin or British or French ancestry. Those ships have sailed, thankfully. What’s “Canadian” that’s worth defending is a tradition and a way of life – liberal (not in the partisan sense, of course) and open, democratic, egalitarian, communitarian, inclusive, and rooted in the fundamental notion of personal autonomy, obligations and rights. It is a way of life that probably cannot live comfortably with concealed faces or the women-hatred those robes symbolize. But in general, the recognition or worship of God in private, even in one’s attire or adornment, does not cross the line into a violation of our shared fundamental values. These may not always be easy things to reconcile but they are worth thinking about. The effort to reconcile these differences is, in fact, one of the “values” worth defending.
But the Quebec law is not worth defending. It identifies some people as human and some as less than human. it promises to dismiss from public workplaces, those individuals whose personal tradition and understanding of religion requires them simply to dress differently. It tells a Muslim woman in a head scarf that she cannot be a nurse, but a Catholic woman in a nun’s habit that she certainly can be one. It doesn’t really get any simpler than that. It is an odious, divisive, evil law. Those who support it are either racists who choose their own visceral feelings over the rights of others, fools (who refuse to see what is happening) or monsters, willing to split society on racial and religious lines, willing to dehumanize a minority, in order to pull in a few votes. Premier Marois is in that third category, I think.
What Canada, and what all Canadians must remember here, is that the people under attack are Canadians. Canadians with the same rights as every other Canadian.
And the question should not be simply what Canadians in Quebec will do to stop this vile law, but what Canadians everywhere will do to stop it.