In late August, when news of the Parti Québécois’ (PQ) proposed Charte des Valeurs or Charter of Values spread (the Charter bans the province’s civil servants from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols), many expressed concerns that this would stir up dormant ethnic and religious tensions in Québec. It led to the removal of the only minority Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament when the MP suggested that the Charter is a form of ethnic nationalism. Early on, critics warned that the proposed Charter would see tremendous backlash calling it draconian, an example of “Stephen Harper-style wedge politics” (Maclean’s, September 20) and even Putinesque (Globe and Mail, August 20). Well-known human rights lawyer, Julius Grey, told Ingrid Peritz of the Globe and Mail that such “values” rules were more typical of the political right than of a party like the PQ that sees itself as progressive. “A charter of values smacks of the [U.S.] Tea Party,” Mr. Grey said. There are two issues here. First, who supports the Charter of Values and who mobilizes around it? Is the Charter tapping into a conservative streak in Québec public opinion and might there be a ring of truth to Grey’s comparison to the Tea Party ? Second, what are the political incentives for the PQ government to pursue such a policy? I don’t claim to provide a complete answer here, but it is clear (at least to me) that this is an attempt by the PQ to set an alternative policy/electoral agenda, confuse the electorate, and reclaim lost territory in rural (and more conservative) Québec where it lost ground.
Protests both in favor and in opposition to the Charter were held in the ensuing weeks. On September 14th, thousands of people turned up for a march near Place du Canada in Montreal with a simultaneous but smaller march in Quebec City. On September 20th, protesters dressed in religious garb stretching 11 city blocks marched through downtown Montreal chanting “La charte à la pubelle!” (the charter in the garbage) as well as calling Pauline Marois, Québec’s premier, a racist (Maclean’s, September 20th). Two days later a smaller pro-Charter protest was held. Who were these protesters? According to Derfel of the Montreal Gazette (September 23), mostly white, middle-aged, and sovereignist. Take for instance, Claire Simard, a retired professor: “I would rather die than be treated by a woman wearing a full-face veil in the ER.” And, while the demonstration was peaceful, one protester did shout “Go home!” to a woman wearing a hijab being interviewed by a television reporter.
The PQ mantra is that the Charter will bring harmony to Québec. Public opinion polls suggest otherwise. An early poll showed a dead split between those who support the Charter and those who oppose it. But it is more complex than that. Given that the majority of immigrants live in the Montreal area (87% of Québec’s new immigrants settle within 500 square kilometers of the Montreal area, followed by the next popular destination, Quebec City with just 3%), the Charter is exacerbating the divide between Montreal and the rest of the province. In addition, while a subsequent poll which shows that 73 percent of Quebeckers are generally in favor of the concept of securalism in civil service (80% of self-identified sovereignists are in favor of the Charter itself), there are splits even within Montreal between Francophones and minorities. In fact, the only point of agreement revolves around “no face coverings in public” (and there is still a 20% difference where about 77% of Francophones agree and 57% of Anglophones and allophones agree). On every other aspect, large divisions exist – from allowing any form of exemption to the Charter, to doctors wearing headgear, to having crucifixes in city halls across the province. The Catholic Church has also chimed in arguing that continuing to push for such a policy will actually divide and ghettoize (presumably referring mostly to non-Christian) immigrants rather then integrate them into Québec society (Catholic Register, August 20th). It has even caused divisions within the feminist movement over what the impact of the Charter will be on women (The Canadian Press, September 20).
But in pursuing the Charter, the PQ might stand to gain politically. What may seem to be anti-leftist and more like something a U.S. Tea Party member might support, as Grey suggested, might save the PQ. This is perhaps why Don MacPherson (Windsor Star September 24) calls it a “Hail Mary play.” Basically, to avoid discussion of another unpopular austerity package and stagnant economy, the PQ is borrowing from the very party that likely cost them the 2007 election. The PQ’s leftist stance, including on issues of immigration and accommodation, may have appealed to leftists in Montreal, but did not to conservative rural areas where less than one or two percent of the population is immigrant. The PQ is using a strategy right out of the Action Democratique’s (ADQ) 2007 election playbook. The PQ used a similar diversionary tactic before. In a prior blog post (August 31), I argued that the PQ used student protests for similar political reasons. Ironically, students who marched alongside PQ members this summer are marching against the PQ’s Charter. “The position of the PQ is practically xenophobic,” said one student. As Patriquin of Maclean’s notes, “In what is either an essential measure to set societal rules (if you believe the Parti Québécois line) or a cynical ploy to regain electoral favor (if you believe just about everyone else), the sovereignist party has essentially declared the next election won’t be fought over the separation of Quebec, but on separating the pious from the symbols of their faith.”
If this Charter is just a political tactic – what MacPherson calls a “vote-getting ploy” – one cannot help but wonder whether the potential political rewards are worth the divisiveness and conflict that will likely be felt for years.