WATCH: Quebec minister Bernard Drainville fields questions on the Charter of Values
QUEBEC – The Quebec government has released its proposals for a controversial “values charter” which would impose broad restrictions, unique in North America, on religious clothing for employees at all government institutions including schools, hospitals and courts.
If adopted by the legislature, the plan could apply to all public servants; civil authorities like judges, police, and prosecutors; public daycare workers; teachers and school employees; hospital workers; municipal personnel; and employees at state-run liquor stores and the auto-insurance board.
“The state must be neutral because it must show the same respect for all religions – regardless of their beliefs,” said the minister responsible, Bernard Drainville.
“This is measured, balanced. Quebec is increasingly a multiethnic, multireligious society. This is a great source of richness. It’s also why we need clear rules.”
The Parti Quebecois government revealed its suggestions Tuesday in the provincial legislature, 13 months after making an election pledge to introduce a charter for secularism.
Not all forms of secularism would be treated equally, however.
The giant crucifix above Montreal’s Mount Royal – and the one above the Speaker’s chair of the legislature – will be spared under the logic that they are integral to Quebec’s cultural history: “The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage,” Drainville said.
Employees who wear a visible crucifix, however, will have to tuck them away. As would those wearing hijabs, burkas, kippas, veils and turbans.
Drainville grappled with questions about other inconsistencies.
Would elected officials be subject to this? No, he replied, arguing that people have a right to choose their representative. Which means that people could, in theory, elect a cabinet minister or premier with a hijab – who would then force employees to remove theirs.
Would elected officials and courtroom witnesses in this staunchly secular state continue to swear an oath on that most non-secular of documents, the Bible?
Drainville appeared caught off-guard by the question: “Oh, my God,” he replied, slowly, “we’ll get back to you.”
And what about city council meetings which begin with prayers, like Saguenay, would that be allowed? Drainville declined to answer the question.
He also brushed off a suggestion that his plan would add to the bureaucracy.
He said institutions could request an opt-out clause, applicable for five years, although he offered few details about how that mechanism would be applied. Drainville said the exemption clause is designed only as an intermediary measure and should not be used by institutions to “systematically” exempt themselves.
While polls have suggested the idea could be popular in Quebec, it has been denounced by some politicians inside the province and from many outside.
Federal reaction to the Charter
Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said Justice Department lawyers will be consulted and, if the plan is found to violate fundamental freedoms, “we will defend those rights vigorously.”
READ MORE: Feds could challenge Quebec values charter
Montreal mayoral candidates Denis Coderre and Marcel Cote were also unsparing in their criticism.
Can the Charter pass in government?
As it stands, for now, the plan is hypothetical.
The minority PQ government cannot pass legislation without support from one other party and it has said it will seek to build consensus with them.
One opposition party, the Coalition, has proposed a scaled-back version of what the PQ wants while the bigger opposition party, the Liberals, is more steadfastly opposed.
The PQ idea flows from an election promise to bar people from wearing religious clothing like hijabs and kippas while working in government institutions.
The party has been emphasizing hot-button identity issues since it was drubbed in the 2007 provincial election. In that election the PQ finished behind the conservative, populist, and now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec.
Some pundits now speculate that the PQ might be trying to drag out the “charter” debate to make Quebec’s identity – and not other issues, like the economy or social services – the heart of the next election campaign.
Institutions could request a “reasonable accommodation” if they can satisfy four conditions – the accommodation must prevent discrimination, must satisfy gender equality, must be reasonable, and must not affect personal safety.