MONTREAL – The Parti Quebecois has finally unveiled the details of its controversial Charter of Quebec Values, with a ban on religious symbols drawing the most criticism.
At a press conference held at the National Assembly in Quebec City, the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville, explained how the PQ proposes to address religious accommodation and Quebec values, in particular equality between men and women and religious neutrality in government.
READ MORE: Full details, analysis and reaction here
“It has been almost a year since the premier gave me the mandate to present Quebecers with solutions on religious accommodation and the religious neutrality of the state,” Drainville noted.
“These offer harmonious relations and social cohesion for a Quebec that is increasingly multiethnic and multireligious,” he added.
The five proposals focus on equality between men and women and the religious neutrality of Quebec government institutions.
1. Enshrine the questions of religious accommodation in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms by outlining the separation of religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its institutions, taking into account our common historical heritage;
2. Ensure that religious neutrality for government employees in the performance of their duties is established in law;
3. Outline what is considered conspicuous religious symbols for government employees during working hours (the proposal is subject to a right of withdrawal for a period of up to five years, renewable for certain sectors);
4. Ensure that the face is visible when giving or receiving government services;
5. Establish a policy to implement the religious neutrality of the state and the management of religious accommodation for government agencies.
“The time has come come together around clear rules and shared values that will put an end to the tensions and misunderstandings,” Drainville said.
“Our proposals will be a source of greater understanding, harmony and cohesion for all Quebec and all Quebecers, regardless of their religion or origin.”
But not everyone sees the charter in such a positive light.
Post doctoral fellow in political science at Concordia University Emmanuelle Richez is calling the ban on religious symbols “unconstitutional.”
The provision (No. 3) would mean all public servants would only be allowed to wear small, inconspicuous religious symbols such as necklaces, rings or earrings with crosses or the Star of David, for example. This would apply to civil authorities like judges, police, and prosecutors; public daycare workers; teachers and school employees; hospital workers; and municipal personnel.
“But what stands out is basically that everything that’s headwear like a turban, kippa or hijab will be forbidden,” said Richez. “So they’re not saying it, but it’s going to be more constraining for people that are not part of the religious majority.”
Richez said that this is problematic because it could dissuade many religious minorities from seeking jobs in the public service. However, she doesn’t think the charter will pass the way it’s being presented now.
“Employees that usually wear religious signs that would now be forbidden to wear them could take the Quebec government to court…and they’ll have support – they’ll be funded by civil liberty groups,” she said.
Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney responded to the Quebec government’s announcement by saying Justice Department lawyers will be consulted. He said if the charter is found to violate freedom of religion, “we will defend those rights vigorously,” acknowledging the possibility of a “legal approach.”
The minority PQ government can’t pass this legislation alone and has said it will seek consensus with other parties before moving forward, though they haven’t found much support yet.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau drew links between the plan and U.S. segregation, Quebec Liberal leader Phillippe Couillard wants to protect individual rights, and Montreal councilors voted unanimously not to endorse it prior to Tuesday’s announcement.
A national girls’ empowerment organization based in Montreal is also worried about the Charter’s impact on equal opportunities.
“Instead of rallying people around common values, we think the proposed Charter would reinforce social exclusion by calling out who supposedly belongs or doesn’t belong in Quebec culture,” said Saman Ahsan, Executive Director of Girls Action Foundation. “If women would potentially lose their jobs for making a personal choice about their dress and beliefs, Quebec would be taking a step away from equality.”
Quebecers will be able to share their views on the proposed changes and read more about the Charter of Values here.
“Throughout its history, Quebec has always managed to find a balance between the rights of everyone and respect for our shared values. These proposals are part of this profoundly democratic “tradition,” concluded Drainville.