What Not to Wear

Quebec’s Charter of Values debate gets testy

Illustration of three birds
Illustration by Alëna Skarina

Last November, the Parti Québécois government tabled its Charter of Values, a secularist bill that, among other things, would prohibit public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kippas, or large crucifixes at work. Quebec’s human rights commission and many NGOs have condemned the charter as an attack on basic freedoms. During parliamentary consultations in January, Samira Laouni, president and founder of the intercultural organization COR, presented a written report and responded to questions from Bernard Drainville, the minister who introduced the bill.—Max Halparin

Laouni: To ask someone to remove a religious symbol during work hours—I think that’s terrible, because it forces her to make an impossible choice. Either she agrees to work and gives up her identity, or she keeps her identity and loses her ability to feed her children or feed herself. And for what? For the gender equality we all cherish. And we know—and you know it very, very well, Mr. Minister—that gender equality can’t be realized without establishing women’s financial autonomy. Without that, there’s no equality, which, in fact, hasn’t even been accomplished yet. The numbers prove it.

Drainville: Yes, but do you recognize that when a citizen sees a religious symbol, he perceives a religious message? Do you accept that premise?

Laouni: He might perceive a religious message, but that’s precisely, that’s just where we’ve said to you…we propose a three-part solution, to do training, public awareness campaigns, precisely because there have always been religious symbols in Quebec. They weren’t non-existent. It’s just that now they’ve become a little more visible, especially in Montreal, with the rise of immigration—that’s all. That explains it. They’ve always existed, and there was never a problem. Why is there one today, in 2014?

Drainville: But if you recognize that a citizen could see a religious message in a religious symbol—is that because you recognize that, in the moment, the citizen could feel like his freedom of conscience is being threatened?

Laouni: There would be certain citizens who would feel threatened, just as there would be some citizens who would feel threatened if they saw an official with a piercing, or an official with tattoos, or a secular official who wanted to impose his secularist dogma on everyone else. And that happened here in Quebec—a teacher who intimidated a seven-year-old child, saying, “You have no right to talk about God. God doesn’t exist.” Yet she wore no religious symbol, this woman. What do we do in these cases? I turn the question over to you, Mr. Minister.

Drainville: What to do in which case?

Laouni: In the case of someone who doesn’t wear a symbol, but who is in a position of influence, who exercises influence.

Drainville: I would say that, in the bill, we’re creating an obligation of religious neutrality, we’re creating an obligation of discretion, and this obligation of neutrality and discretion applies as equally to religious convictions as to other convictions, like the ones you raised. In other words, once the charter has been passed there will be an obligation that applies to public officials, and these officials will not, in any way, be able to promote a secularist position like the one you’re talking about. It won’t give them free rein. The obligation of neutrality that we’re creating with the charter applies to religious beliefs, but I would say the same of non-religious beliefs of the secular sort: pro-secular, or even pro-agnostic. That’s my response.

Now, I see in your report, on page four, that you are open—and I quote—“We are open to a consensus on this ban.” You’re talking about the ban on wearing religious symbols. So you say, “We are open to a consensus on this ban for public officials who have enforcement power,” for police, judges, prison guards. Can you tell me why this is acceptable for you, a ban on wearing a religious symbol for a police officer, a judge, and a prison guard—why it is for them, and why it isn’t for other public officials?

Laouni: It’s simple. The answer is very simple. It’s a uniform. There’s a uniform.

Drainville: Okay, but…

Laouni: It’s simple.

Drainville: So would another kind of work have to have a uniform for you to agree to a restriction on religious symbols?

Laouni: Maybe Quebec will just wind up with a Mao Zedong dress code, and we’ll all look alike, and then there won’t be any problems for anyone.

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

The Walrus
Alëna Skarina
Alëna Skarina counts among her clients the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Chatelaine.