In what is being described as a “surprising achievement,” an “astonishing victory,” and a “stunning election upset,” the provincial Liberal Party won a majority government in Monday’s Quebec elections. This unexpected turn of events led to the resignation of Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois (below).
While much of Canada has been focused on what this victory means for the separatist movement, and the implications of that for the country’s politics and economy — our dollar is stronger already! — the secular community in Canada and beyond has been more interested in the fate of Marois’ controversial Charter of Values, which was expected to lead to job loss for public-sector employees who wear religious head coverings such as the Sikh turban or Muslim hijab. The Charter would ban these garments, as well as other highly visible religious symbols, though certain Christian symbols would be permitted as representations of Quebec’s “cultural heritage.”
The Charter of Values has been divisive both within and outside of Quebec. Affected workplaces expressed concern about the time and money they would spend to comply and about the likelihood of “costly workplace conflicts” affecting service quality. Individual support for the charter was somewhat mixed: some individuals found the bill fair and sensible, while others found it downright xenophobic. And, though polling showed a slender majority of Quebecers in favor of the charter, many voters saw it as a transparent ploy to drum up PQ support by playing on identity issues.
Now that the Liberal Party under Philippe Couillard has risen to majority status, the future of the charter looks troubled indeed. During his campaign, Couillard expressed strong opposition to the legislation, though it’s unclear how much of his commentary was election-season hyperbole:
I’m 56 years old, [and] I’ve never seen anything this cynical in Quebec politics. This is very bad for democracy in Quebec. To fight for sovereignty, to fight for independence is legitimate in a democracy. But to deliberately seize on an issue as delicate as the coexistence of our communities, to program discrimination at the workplace for your own benefit, that’s unacceptable.
Having ascended to power, however, he has promised to address the issues the charter raised early in his term as premier and expressed hope that he could find common ground between those who support the bill and those who oppose it. It remains unclear what form that common ground will take.
In his acceptance speech Monday night, Couillard addressed these complex issues with words that, as the National Post‘s Graeme Hamilton put it, “reached out to minorities who felt targeted by PQ politics”:
My dear friends, the division is over. The reconciliation has begun. We are all Quebecers. The pride in Quebec, of our identity, our language, and our flag belongs to all Quebecers… We share the values of generosity, compassion, solidarity, and equality of men and women with our Anglophone fellow citizens who also built Quebec, and with our fellow citizens who came from all over the world to write the next chapter in our history with us. I want to tell them that the time of injury is over. Welcome, you are at home here.
Politics-watchers, including federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, generally agree that this policy will not be a priority for the new Quebec government. That said, the tensions that made the Charter of Values controversial — and, for some Canadians within and beyond Quebec’s borders, deeply appealing — are far from resolved.