When The Aga Kahn, imam and spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, visited Ottawa in 2002, he told the Globe and Mail that “Canada is today the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe, without any doubt in my mind. . . . That is something unique to Canada. It is an amazing global human asset.” The visit later inspired the Aga Khan to choose our capital as the location for the Global Centre of Pluralism, a research and education centre dedicated to spreading the tenets of tolerance. While some surely still hold onto ignorant views of other religions or ethnicities, most Canadians would have a hard time arguing with the Aga Khan.
The past four weeks have been a contentious time for multiculturalists, and the debate is taking place right across the Rideau from the capital of pluralism. Some Quebecois want to decide just how deeply religious freedoms and tolerance should dip into the public sphere. The separatist Parti Quebecois’ proposed new Charter of Values would potentially ban the wearing of religious dress for public sector workers, including doctors, teachers, lawyers, and police officers. Thinly veiled as a move forward for secularism, the Charter represents a backwards spill for the religious rights of Muslims, Sikhs, and Jewish people. On September 10 the PQ published a pictogram displaying proposed appropriate and inappropriate religious clothing. The “inappropriate” side includes a turban, head scarf, veil, and yamaka, all required by their respective faiths, while the “appropriate” side displays a cross necklace, Star of David ring, and crescent earrings, none of which are considered mandatory for practice.
Parti Quebecois’ proposed breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) has been defended in two ways:
Firstly, by claiming that a ban on all religious symbols will result in equality. The ban targets certain groups more than others, and will make it much more difficult for Muslims, Sikhs, and Jewish people who observe a religious dress code to find employment in Quebec, and will more likely result in those people leaving the public sector or the province completely than actually complying with the ban. Furthermore, the 30 metre tall, illuminated cross atop Mount Royal in Montreal will not be affected by the ban. Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for the Charter, defended the exemptions by stating that they are “part of Quebec culture… We will recognize elements of our heritage that bear witness to our history.” The statement implies that any non-Christians, for example Montreal’s 250 year old Jewish community, have no part in PQ’s idea of Quebec culture or history.
Secondly, by asserting that the new Charter is necessary to maintain a secular society. While I admit that each province lies on different political grounds, the joining of church and state has never been a fear of mine either federally or within British Columbia. If PQ truly had any interest in secularism, they would have set the example by removing the crucifix from the National Assembly or by asking all Members of National Assembly to stop wearing religious symbols themselves, both of which will not happen even if the new law goes through. As I’ve stated above, many religious minorities will leave Quebec if the ban passes, which could only work to enforce any sway the majority religion has on the National Assembly.
The Charter of Values has already been bashed by politicians from around the country. Stephen Harper stated that “our job is to make sure that all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel home in this country and be Canadians.” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told press that “the text confirms our worst fears, we’re categorical in rejecting this approach,” while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau claimed that Quebec Premier Pauline Marois “has a plan, she has an agenda, she’s trying to play divisive identity politics because it seems to be the only thing that is able to distract from the serious economic challenges that we’re facing as a province and a country. But Canadians and Quebeckers are better than that.”
Despite finding no love in Ottawa, the Charter has become popular with Quebec pollers, reaching a 66% approval rating within the province. If Quebeckers buy into what can be called scapegoating at worst and intolerance at best, the entire country will be taking a step back. Indeed, the Global Centre of Pluralism may have to take its gaze off the sea and sets its sight across the Rideau Canal.