I spent the first days of Sukkot visiting some cousins in Toronto. In-between the meals and playing with their four beautiful kids I had many conversations about the “Charter of Values” recently unveiled in Quebec.
Attempting to find a popular wedge issue, the ruling party in Quebec has proposed to ban religious symbols from public spaces. This follows in the footsteps of France, which banned religious symbols in schools in 2004, and the wearing of the full-face Islamic veils in public in 2011. The Quebec proposal would ban kippot, alongside hijabs and niqabs on government officials and possibly from public buildings. They did however make an exemption for symbols with a cultural history, namely the large crucifix that hangs in the Quebec legislative chamber.
Canada has always been a petri-dish for looking at how minority cultures can be treated. With the indigenous communities and the French-speaking minority, odd previous have been granted. Catholic schools in Ontario can get public funds, other faiths cannot. French signs in Quebec must be bigger by law then their English counterparts. The interesting public policy challenges have given rise to world-class philosophers. It is home to the great Charles Taylor who incidentally has called this new piece of legislation “Putinesque.”
Some see this piece of legislation as just another French import. French secularism has always tried to make the public space totally secular and civic. It is supposed to discriminate equally and therefore fairly.
It is an open question whether the French model has worked. I believe that the French view of public spaces creates more segregation then unity and an inability for minority communities to feel part of the nation.
Even a supporter of French secularism would see the Quebec imitation as imperfect. The Quebec public square is anything but neutral. It imposes the primacy of French language and culture by law. This “Charter of Values” exempts Catholic iconography through the usage of ‘cultural value.’ Catholic public workers, presumably for cultural reasons, could wear a cross or see a Christmas tree. If these rights were taken away, there would be uproar.
Yet for other minorities the cultural value of their faiths is unfit for the public square. To see a kippa or a hijab would be a cultural threat rather then something to be integrated into the rich tapestry of today’s Quebec.
Discrimination, even if it hides behind the concept of ‘cultural values’ is discrimination nonetheless. Some commentators have pointed that this policy is just a crude attempt to ban the niqab. The level of national outrage surprised the authors of the bill and they are in the process of clarifying it.
This ham-fisted attempt to restrict minority rights could be a rallying call for every faith community to protest in one voice. Social engineering through the restriction of a citizen’s attire only serves to harden views and create alienation and segregation. Fighting against discrimination can often be a bridge to force minority groups together. By attacking everyone, Quebec’s “Charter of Values” might have just created a more united society then when they started.