Applying Social Justice Advocacy Principles to Quebec's Charter of Values

Protests in Montreal + head shot of Gabrielle Cole

By Gabrielle Cole (M.S.'14)

As someone who has called Quebec home for more than 10 years and who has been a part of the French-speaking community in Canada my entire life, I am both outraged and ashamed at the way Quebec is currently portrayed throughout Canada and internationally because of the proposed Charter of Québec Values.

This charter would reinforce neither religious neutrality nor gender equality. Rather, it reveals the xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments of the current government, and certain segments of the Quebec population.

Although a ban on the wearing of large crucifixes by public employees would apply along with a ban on kippahs, turbans and hijabs, Christians would have the right to wear smaller crucifixes, a practice that is already quite common and widely accepted among Roman Catholics. However, there is no such thing as a non-conspicuous version of the kippah, turban or hijab. The Jewish, Sikh and Muslim communities, who represent only 4 percent of the population in Quebec, are being unfairly targeted and made to feel unwelcome.

Let’s be clear: Catholic symbols are widespread in Quebec’s public institutions—from the crucifix on the wall behind the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, to the many streets, schools and hospitals named after Catholic saints, and to Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebrated every year as Quebec’s national holiday.

There is no doubt that Catholicism has a special status already in Quebec society. No one would deny the important role the Catholic Church has played in the development of Quebec. However, by making special provision for the wearing of small crucifixes, we are sending the message to Jews, Sikhs and Muslims that they are outsiders, and not valued as “true” Quebecers.

Another supposed justification for the charter is to enshrine the value of equality between men and women. But if there is a meaningful connection between gender equality and the ban on overt religious symbols in public institutions, it has not been clearly articulated. It is, instead, an unspoken assumption, one that declares, implicitly, that all Muslim women are oppressed.

With this proposed charter, the government rules out any possibility that any Muslim woman is wearing a hijab of her own volition. Furthermore, the government is saying that even Muslim women with advanced university degrees who are working for the government, say as doctors in hospitals, could not have chosen of their own free will to wear a hijab.

In effect, the government is saying Muslim women need to be saved from their own immoral communities.

Where is the gender equality in that?

This charter would divide Quebec and make social cohesion difficult to achieve in the future. It would encourage more exclusion and more fear of “the other.” While I call Montreal home, I have worked abroad for long stretches over the past decade and I can see that it will only hurt Quebec’s image internationally and nationally if this charter ever becomes a bill that is passed into law.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the 24 October 2013 Montreal Gazette. It is cross-published here with their permission.

Gabrielle Cole is a second-year policy-method student in the Contemporary Social Issues field of practice. She developed these ideas in a course she was taking with Professor Susan Witte. Before coming to CSSW, Cole worked for several years in humanitarian aid and international development.

Images: "Manifestation contre la charte des valeurs québécoises," by Matias Garabedian (14-09-2013), courtesy Flickr; inset: Gabrielle Cole.

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