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Thoughts on the Québec Charter of Values debate

If English Canada and francophone Québec have been described as Two Solitudes due to their respective cultural differences and the ensuing lack of communication between English and French Canadians, the debate over Parti québécois Premier Pauline Marois’ proposed “Charter of Québec Values” Bill appears to be an interesting case study that supports the Two Solitudes thesis.

 The Values Charter was unveiled on September 10, 2013 and has ignited a firestorm in both Québec and Canada – but for different reasons. In English Canada, the notion of the Values Charter has generally been met in the media with skepticism, outrage, and instant rejection as an affront to Canadian values of tolerance and multiculturalism – although this might be largely an élite reaction, as one poll suggests.

Crime statistics demonstrate that voilent crime in Canada is at a low point in the last 40 years; yet, the Harper government keeps pushing crime Bills and touts “Safe Cities and Communities” whenever it can.

In French Québec, the debate over the PQ’s Charte des valeurs québécoiseseven within multicultural Montreal, albeit to a lesser extent – is on whether the Values Charter actually addresses the issue, which is a real desire to curb some perceived “unreasonable” religious accommodations, and affirm Québec’s most important values which are equality of sexes and secularism. Many québécois think the Values Charter does have some merit, but that its final form was ham-handed and instead of curbing “unreasonable” demands for religious accommodation from fundamentalist Muslims and Hassidic (extreme Orthodox) Jews, the net was cast too wide.

The basis of this francophone consensus goes back to a string of media stories since 2006 over some perceived “unreasonable” demands for religious accommodation. These include, in addition to an example cited above, an episode where a group of Muslims visiting a Cabane à sucre asked the proprietor if they could perform their noon prayer; the proprietor initially agreed, but then had to ask all the other visitors to leave the room to accommodate the prayer. There was also a case of a Muslim family demanding that halal food be served in a public preschool, and of a woman refusing to remove her niqab in a public college was expelled.

In 2007, Premier Jean Charest appointed a Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, better known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (well-known sociologist Gérard Bouchard, and philosopher Charles Taylor) who took a year to consult in 17 Québec communities on the issue of “reasonable accommodations.” Their report, published in May 2008, found that many of the examples that caused a certain level of outrage were recent but did not constitute a trend or evidence of some form of cultural invasion – which was in their words mostly a “crisis of perception.” But in Québec, the niqab is an affront to the value of equality of sexes and a practice to be shunned in modern society.

So, what will happen in Québec? As previously mentioned, there exists a strong consensus in Francophone Québec to address the issue of religious accommodations. Civic and business leaders in Montreal, a large cosmopolitan city that represents 40 per cent of Québec’s population and half of the provinces GDP, have spoken against the Values Charter and the issue itself is exposing a rift between “urban” separatists and their non-urban colleagues. While it is possible that the issue would be the cause of a late fall election, it is not certain that the PQ has the advantage.

In conclusion, I will propose the following analogy to further explain how an issue can resonate in one community, and not in another, and be an electoral issue. Crime statistics demonstrate that violent crime in Canada is at a low point in the last 40 years; yet, the Harper government keeps pushing crime Bills and touts “Safe Cities and Communities” whenever it can. This issue resonates within a core Conservative voting group that perceives that crime is rampant and a law-and-order government is a good thing. Facts don’t matter in most debates: perceptions do. And Francophone québécois perceive that their unique minority culture within an Anglophone North America is under siege by foreign practices and religious extremism. So it becomes an electoral issue within that community.