Kalina Laframboise
Canadian University Press

Protestors in Montreal march in support of the controversial Charter of Values. Photo by: Nathalie Laflamme/The Concordian

Montreal (CUP) — Hundreds of protesters gathered in the streets of downtown Montreal Sunday, September 22, to show their support for the Parti Québécois government’s newly-proposed Charter of Values that promotes the secularization of the public institutions in Quebec.

A sea of blue and white stood patiently in the rain at Place Émilie-Gamelin during speeches at that called for support for the provincial government’s project that would amend the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms to clarify religious accommodations.

The proposal has drawn criticism from inside and outside of Quebec, but those in attendance spoke in admiration of a secular public sector before the crowd made its way through the streets in a peaceful march.

However, the demonstration did create tension through certain chants or confrontations between those who support and oppose the charter. At the end of the rally, a woman wearing a hijab and a man who marched were yelling at one another when another woman intervened by screaming “go back home.”

Anne-Marie Gosselin, a student at Université du Québec à Montréal who is in favour of the charter, stressed that neutrality of the state is important.

“[It’s] like asking for civil servants not to show their allegiance to a political party,” said Gosselin. “It seems only logical to me then that civil servants don’t show their religious affiliations.”

Gosselin explained that if civil servants are expected to be politically neutral then they should also be neutral when it comes to faith-based symbols. Those who feel uncomfortable with being unable to express their religion this way could leave Quebec.

“I have one thing to say to immigrants who complain,” said Gosselin. “If you find that Quebec is less welcoming than where you are from, then go back home.”

One woman, who wished to be identified as Sylvie, marched with a large sign: the Quebec flag decorated with drawings of niqabs and hijabs with the word “equality” in capital letters. “I’m here because equality is non-negotiable,” said Sylvie. “It’s out of respect of all of the women in Quebec.”

The Charter of Values seeks to prohibit civil servants from wearing conspicuous religious symbols and limit time off for faith-based holidays while still allowing “small” symbols of faith to be worn. Hospitals and educational institutions could apply for an opt-out clause as an exception to the law. However, the removal of veils that cover the face—such as niqabs and burkas—could not be challenged.

Amnesty International openly denounced the charter on September 20, specifically condemning the enforced removal of veils since the organization believes it goes against fundamental rights.

“Women must not be forced to wear a scarf or a veil, neither by the government nor by individuals,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, executive director of Amnesty International Canada’s francophone branch, in a press release, “but it is no more acceptable for a law to prevent them from wearing such garb.”

For Sylvie, the removal of religious symbols will reinforce the equality of men and women in the workforce and in Quebec. Gosselin echoed a similar sentiment regarding veils that cover the face.

“Minister Bernard Drainville doesn’t treat things lightly, and he went to the depths of this symbol to understand its significance,” said Gosselin. “Essentially, it represents the domination of men over women. For me, that’s unacceptable in Quebec.”