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Charter of Values

In the debate over religious symbols in the workplace, the Parti Quebecois is an odd spectacle to behold

By Dennis Gruending

The Parti Quebecois government has created controversy by proposing the Charter of Quebec Values aimed at restricting public sector employees from wearing religious symbols — turbans, head scarves, skullcaps and presumably crosses — in their workplaces.

The PQ claims that this would unify Quebecers behind the idea of a secular state, but Charles Taylor, the well-known academic who co-chaired a provincial commission into reasonable accommodation in 2007, describes the proposal as an “absolutely terrible act of exclusion.”

So the debate is on. Former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry has lashed out at English Canadian media for “Quebec bashing” while covering the matter. Landry told CBC Radio’s As It Happens that Quebec welcomes immigrants but wants them to join society. "When you change country, you change country,” he said. “And you have to get first the language, then the culture and integrate.”  In the same interview, Landry even goes on to ridicule the idea of police wearing turbans, which harks back to the Reform Party’s 1989 convention resolution stating that Sikhs should be barred from wearing turbans in the RCMP.

Former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry. Courtesy of Creative Commons
Former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry. Courtesy of Creative Commons
Landry’s comments on religious accommodation obviously shift quickly to immigration policy although individuals barred from wearing religious symbols would likely include native-born Quebecers.

Still, recent opinion polling shows that 58 percent of Quebecers support the Charter of Quebec Values, compared to 42 percent in the rest of Canada. The Montreal Gazette reports that support for the charter was highest among people who vote Conservative —  at 49 percent.

It’s interesting that right-leaning commentators, including The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, use what they see as the failed immigration policies of Europe as a basis for claiming that Canada’s multiculturalism policies are failing as well.  

Not so, says Professor Will Kymlicka, the Canada research chair in political philosophy at Kingston’s Queen’s University. Kymlicka says that what passes for analysis is often really anecdote and hunch. He adds that research across national boundaries indicates that Canada is, in fact, successful in the integration of immigrants and their children, and that policies — aimed at promoting social cohesion among a variety of racial and ethnic groups — play a role in that success.

Multiculturalism was even included in Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is perhaps another reason why Landry doesn’t like it.  He instead argues that Canada will long come to regret its policy of multiculturalism, which he says creates racial and ethnic ghettoes.  

And so, we are left with the odd spectacle of the Parti Quebecois, which has always claimed to be progressive and socially democratic, promoting policies resembling those of Canada’s Right.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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