The introduction of a proposed “Charter of Quebec values” by the Government of Quebec on September 10, 2013 was as a major event which can be considered part of a long process of secularization in Quebecois society, dating back to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, which achieved its last success in the late 1990s by denominating schools based on languages (French versus English) rather than religion (Catholic versus Protestant). Throughout its history, Quebecois society has been strongly tied to the Catholic Church, which historically maintained a powerful presence in education, healthcare, and even political parties. In the wake of the “Quiet Revolution”, French Canadians, who represent the majority of the province’s Catholics, have become less religiously observant. At the same time, the Quebecois national movement that had its birth within a Catholic movement—“Action sociale catholique,” which was active between 1905 and 1962—has itself become increasingly secular.
The proposed bill on a Charter of Quebec Values originated from a government led by the Parti Quebecois (PQ), an entity not particularly known for deep religiosity. The bill was criticized by many as a political manoeuvre by PQ to instrumentalize a religious issue—in particular, anxieties about Muslim migration—to reposition itself as a supporter of Quebecois culture and to win more votes in upcoming elections. In fact, for many observers, the PQ devised its strategy by learning from the example of the fast-growing popularity gains made by another political party, the ADQ (Action démocratique du Québec), which in 2006 made electoral headway by capitalizing on the controversy of “reasonable accommodations.” The PQ used similar tactics to exploit fear of foreigners and present itself as the protector of the Quebec’s identity, culture, and historical heritage. Just as the ADQ had harvested a record number of votes after capitalizing on the reasonable accommodation crisis, before disappearing thereafter, the PQ hoped to benefit from Charter of Values initiative to win the election and form a majority government.
The proposed law aimed, among other things, to prohibit the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” in public institutions and in private sector institutions financed even in part with public funds—institutions such as daycare centres, private clinics, private schools. The broad scope of the proposed law catalyzed great debates about citizenship equality, and quickly led to an outcry by some that the legislation was Islamophobic.
The Charter of Values is an important case to examine when considering pluralist coexistence because of the great tensions it generated—tensions which drove even the least interested citizens to participate and to express their opinions in the subsequent public debate. Amiraux and Koussens see in this kind of proposal the difficulties that liberal democracies in the West face in managing diversity in general, and especially religious pluralism. It is this confrontation among different visions of nation, and between those promoting a greater measure of cultural, linguistic, and religious homogeneity and those advocating for a more inclusive “interculturalism,” (the preferred French phrase in Quebec for what in English is usually referred to as multiculturalism) that makes the Charter of Values debate so important. The commission on Reasonable Accommodation, held in 2008, proposed in its report the concept of interculturalism as an alternative to Canadian multiculturalism, justifying this choice by the fact that multiculturalism in its Canadian version is not well suited to the reality of Quebec. Indeed, the French Canadian Quebecois are a cultural minority in Canada and North America and fear for their cultural survival as a nation.
Needless to say, most religious communities did not welcome the Charter bill. While many nationalist politicians, artists, and intellectuals tried to position themselves as protectors of Catholicism, most Catholic clergy in Quebec denounced the bill. In addition to the clergy, represented by the Assemblée Nationale des Évêques du Québec, Dominicans and Jesuits played a leading role in opposing the proposed law. At the same time, however, other nationalists tried to use Quebec’s Catholic heritage as a basis for excluding Islam and Muslims.
The official flyer detailing the proposed law was entitled: “parce que nos valeurs, on y croit ”— “because we believe in our values”. Phonetically, the French word “croit” (from the verb to believe) in the title is pronounced like “croix” (a cross). That fact did not escape the eye of critics, who circulated an image of the first page of the booklet with a red cross on the letter “t” transforming it to “x”, thus changing the meaning from “believe’ to “cross”.
These critics pointed to inconsistencies within the charter’s goal of banning ostentatious religious symbols from public institutions, including the cross, while intending to keep the large crucifix installed during the government of Maurice Duplessis in the main chamber of the National Assembly.
Public controversy as an accelerator of cultural change
Not surprisingly, Muslims perceived the law to be directed against them. Notwithstanding their internal diversity and organic decentralization, Muslims tried to organize themselves by creating a united coalition known by the acronym, QMDL (Québécois Musulmans pour les Droits et Libertés). The organization sponsored numerous press conferences, demonstrations, and rallies.
A few weeks after the official announcement of the proposed charter legislation, on Thursday, October 10, 2013, the “Centre Justice et Foi,” a public affairs center linked to the Jesuit Order, organized a conference under the title “remettre l’égalité citoyenne au cœur du débat” (relocating citizen equality at the heart of the debate). I entered the main hall of the Centre the evening of the conference and was surprised to find people from the entire metropolitan Montreal region. For the majority of similar events, the room half full at best. That night, the room was filled beyond capacity and the organizers were forced to add chairs to accommodate the overflow.
The panel that evening brought together speakers from diverse backgrounds: Elisabeth Garant, a Catholic and director of the “Centre Justice et Foi”; Dominique Peschard, a largely secular figure and president of the “Ligue des droits et libertés,” a provincial human rights NGO; Alexa Conradi, a feminist and president of the “Fédération des Femmes du Quebec”; Asmaa Ibnouzahir, a Muslim feminist; and Michel Seymour, a secular nationalist and well-known intellectual. The speaker forum thus included Catholics, Muslims, and secular-minded people. The diversity of the alliance was seen in other meetings and rallies, and showed that the Charter of Values legislation had touched a deep public nerve. One of the participants summarized the reality in an ironic way, thanking the Prime Minister of the government of the Parti Quebecois, Pauline Marois, because her project produced a large participation in dialogue and activities related to citizenship: “Je veux dire merci à Mme Pauline Marois. C’est grâce à ce projet qu’on est rassemblé là! — I want to say thank you to Pauline Marois. It is because of this project that we are together here!” (This sentence and similar sentences were repeated by several speakers at the conference of October 10, 2013 at Centre Justice et Foi and on other occasions).
We can thus ask, did the social tension generated by the Charter have a positive effect, unwittingly broadening citizen participation? At a dialogue with a representative of Bel Agir, a Muslim association that organized a rally against the charter in the Palais des Congrès de Montréal on December 14, 2014, one activist told me that ‘to mobilize this large number of associations of civil society, would have required several years in a normal situation. But with the issue of the charter, we work under pressure and we saved a lot of time reaching people faster and seeking partnership with others in struggle against the charter.”
When public engagement serves to protect private life
One of the reasons people reacted strongly to the Charter legislation was their feeling that their private lives, including how they dress and what they believe, were threatened. The following comment from social media was typical: “On ne donnera à personne le droit d’entrer aux garde-robes de nos femmes! — We will not give anyone the right to enter to our women’s wardrobes”. The “wardrobe” in this expression is what a Muslim woman I met called “mon éthique vestimentaire”—“my dress ethics”, referring to the Charter’s proposal to ban the hijab for Muslim women. In this instance, the state’s ambition of entering into the protected circle of the individual’s privacy did not weaken citizenship involvement, but activated it. For these actors, citizen participation sought to protect individual rights, freedom of conscience, and family values. Contrary to some critics’ claims, the opposition was not the result of the Charter touching on something “sacred” and thus unquestionable. How else can we understand Quebecois Muslims’ mobilization, notwithstanding an unemployment rate far in excess of the national average? The answer is that social marginalisation and discrimination were perceived by these actors as directly affecting their private and public lives.
Obviously, banning the hijab doesn’t touch only the private life of individuals, but it would also greatly weaken women’s public participation, a point raised by the Women’s Federation of Quebec during their interventions in public debates. Also, very conservative circles inside the Muslim Community saw in the proposed law a way to serve their plans to bring back women to their homes and to keep them focusing on their “main purpose” by educating their kids. Accordingly, Muslim women were motivated to participate by the fear to lose their jobs and to be confined to housekeeping.
Pluralism in solitude
Although there is diversity in actors’ religious tendencies and thoughts, it is interesting to discover that at some levels there nonetheless remains a wide isolation between different initiatives and a deep lack of representativeness of the antagonists’ positions by both camps. Despite the diversity on display at the aforementioned Centre Justice et Foi event, Charter supporters were notably absent among the panel of speakers, something that the audience did not fail to notice. On the other side, at events sponsored by those in favor of the Charter, a similar situation occurred: there were almost no instances of multi-sided debate. It is true, then, that the controversy surrounding the Charter of Values bill deepened public interest in pluralism, but it also prevented the representation of the various parties in the debate in their full plurality. One reason for this is the difficulty of managing the intensity of interactions in real-and-existing public squares. Who can assume such a responsibility and ensure that the “civic” confrontational nature does not take precedence over the courtesy of the “civil” character of citizenship? Despite all this diversity produced by a focal event like the project of the charter of Quebec values, it was characterized by a measure of solitude in plurality.
On April 7th, 2014, the Parti Quebecois lost the vote in the provincial elections. One of the reasons behind its defeat was the controversy caused by the Charter of Values legislation. Religious and ethnic minorities, especially Muslims, felt relieved by the outcome of the vote. However, tensions related to Islam, as the religion of the “other,” are still widespread and unresolved. The precise formula for religion, public ethics, and citizenship in a post-Quiet Revolution Quebec remains unclear. But the mobilization and social networking set in motion by the Charter of Values debate, in particular that between Muslim associations, Catholic institutions, and other groupings in civil society remains a genuine social presence. Future challenges may yet make these ties stronger and more sustainable.
Azeddine Hmimssa is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the University of Montreal. Azeddine earned a master’s degree in religious studies and sociology from the same university where he wrote his thesis on citizenship as seen by Muslims in Quebec. He also holds a M.Sc. from ETS in Montreal, and a diploma in Islamic traditional studies from Nouakchott, Mauritania. Azeddine has worked as a researcher for the Canada Research Chair on Islam, Pluralism, and Globalization at the University of Montreal, and is a contributor to Contending Modernities’ Public Ethics And Citizenship In Plural Societies project. His research focuses on citizenship and pluralism in Islamic thought.