Generally speaking, Canadians like to fancy ourselves decent, tolerant people, (mostly) accepting of cultural diversity in a live-and-let-live sort of way, and openly enthusiastic when it comes to having plenty of restaurant choices for dining out.
So when Quebec’s Parti Quebecois acknowledged that its Charter of Values will lead to job loss for people who wear turbans, kippahs, and Islamic head coverings — particularly after Montreal PQ candidate Évelyne Abitbol said explicitly that, following a transition period, those who refuse to comply with the Charter will be fired from public-service positions — PQ leader Pauline Marois understandably felt that a little damage control was needed.
Doing her best to avoid Abitbol’s directness about firing people whose religious expression doesn’t follow the model set by Christianity, Marois insisted that her government would
work with the person, help them, advise them… We believe it is possible to find pathways to steer these people to other jobs that match their skills, because (the charter) does not touch the private sector. We are only looking at the public sector.
Marois did not address the separate-but-unequal problem this creates: private-sector jobs often pay less than their public-sector equivalents and employers may be more reluctant to offer benefits or job security to employees when such measures cut into their bottom line. Some careers lack private-sector equivalents altogether; Marois did not address how she would help those workers, except to say that she doesn’t really think people will be fired over the issue, since the year-long transition period would allow those affected to “adapt to the charter” — presumably by abandoning their religious headdress.
Asked if she worried that people would abandon Quebec in favor of provinces with rules more open to diversity, Marois said
I’m not afraid about that because we will respect all the religions; we will respect all the people. Here there is freedom, and they will continue to practise their religion, and I don’t have any problem with that.
Once again, Marois is viewing the practice of world religions through a Christian lens, in which attendance at worship services is the primary form of “practice” and other markers of belief are optional or “extra.” Yet for many of the religions targeted by the Charter, visible religious identifiers like the hijab, niqab, or turban are important religious and cultural symbols.
Politics-watchers in Canada have suggested that the PQ is doing its best to make the Charter a central issue in the upcoming provincial election, in place of separatist politics that usually follow the party. “Identity politics,” Canadian Press journalists Sidhartha Banergee and Nelson Wyatt suggest, have “proven fruitful” for the Parti Quebecois in the past. Other politicians have raised the possibility that Marois aims to avoid more substantive policy discussions, and Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard argues that the charter is actually aimed at bringing about a referendum on Quebec sovereignty:
It is regrettable, questionable, and indefensible to see how, to Madame Marois and the PQ, the end justifies the means… The goal was not to legislate on the so-called identity [of Quebec]. The goal was to create a big fight, a big division, and build that in a truly Machiavellian way toward a referendum.
What seems clear, however, is that this legislation — which allows Christian symbols to remain in the public square as symbols of “Quebec culture” — is not truly about providing a fully secular public space.