On Nov. 7, the Parti Québécois (PQ) moved to table the controversial Charter of Values, revealing the document with its new, lengthy title—the “Charter affirming the values of secularism and the religious neutrality of the state, as well as the equality of men and women, and the framing of accommodation requests”—or, more simply, Bill 60. This piece of legislation remains hotly contested; some see the charter as a way for the present Quebec government to refocus attention away from other pressing matters, such as the Montreal corruption scandal or tuition protests of last year. Nonetheless, it remains a blatant assault on the rights of those who chose to wear religious symbols and attire.
While the charter’s proponents call it a measure for equality, it is actually an assault on the religious freedoms of those who wear such symbols as the hijab, kippa or turban. The only way religions can be treated equally is to either allow no one to openly wear conspicuous symbols, or to let everyone wear what they please. Regulating the size of crosses and openly banning specific religious objects while allowing others shows that the government privleges certain faiths over others. How can a measure be labeled equal if it’s openly biased against certain religious groups? The simple answer is that it can’t.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission has condemned the bill; according to the commission’s chairman, “Part of the problem is it all aims at one group—this is systemic discrimination.”
There has been a recent surge in media coverage of Islamophobic incidents amongthe public here in Montreal—the most notable being a video of a man harassing a woman on a city bus for wearing a hijab. A Quebec women’s coalition claims there has been a marked increase in the number of veiled women being harassed and insulted in the public since the charter was proposed earlier this year. This raises the larger question of whether the charter has made a former non-issue into a larger problem within the community. It’s quite possible that the legislation has become a platform for some to attack those expressing their faith. The harassment shows a darker side to our society. For all the talk of multiculturalism, there remains a tension over the vast array of religious denominations, races, and sexual orientations of individuals. The charter has served to highlight this, for better or for worse. Perhaps most importantly, the charter will allow us to remember that we are far from a homogenous society, which is a good thing.
As we approach the holiday season, there is no doubt that many groups will come forward, frustrated with “Merry Christmas” greetings and Christmas concerts in elementary schools the country over. Every season, parents mob the media, complaining about school officials for turning to the more secular title of holiday concert. Last year, there was great debate after rumours that the White House had banned the name “Christmas” trees, calling them “Holiday Trees” instead. It’s not hard to run across someone during this time of year who tells someone not of the Christian faith to just assimilate and deal with Christmas, even though at heart, it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. If a hijab or turban is going to be banned under the proposed Charter of Values, should not the open symbols of Christianity be as well? It may well be that the trees and lore offend people not of the Christian faith. There remains a similar blatant favouritism of Catholicism and Catholic symbols within the charter, as well as similar Christian emblems.
It sounds like a joke to go so far as to remove Christmas from the public eye. It’s is very much part of our society, but so are the turban, kippa and hijab to those who wear them. Taking any of those away from the people who value them is a clear infringement of their rights of expression and religious freedom. It goes without question that equality is clearly not at stake here, only the blatant discrimination of members of specific religious affiliations.