The issues of prayers and religious symbols in provincial legislatures and municipal councils; religious-based schools and practices; and Canada as a multicultural country have caused widespread debate in Quebec and across Canada of late. You can hardly open a newspaper or listen to a news report and not catch at least one instance of it. Furthermore, with the recent increase in immigration, many Quebecers—and Canadians—are trying to define their identify: what does it mean to be a citizen of Quebec and a citizen of Canada? It has become a national issue!
However, the debate is more apparent in Quebec and the province’s National Assembly.
Way back in 2009, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois introduced a private member’s bill, An Act to assert the fundamental values of the Québec nation but it never went anywhere. In 2011, the bill was reintroduced as Bill 391, An Act to assert the fundamental values of the Québec nation. The purpose of the bill is to integrate the fundamental values of the Québec nation (as Marois and her party sees them) into the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The message is short and clear, the fundamental values of the Quebec nation are: equality between women and men, the pre-eminence of French and secularism (separation of state and religion). The bill would also add a provision specifying that the Charter must be interpreted with due regard to Quebec’s heritage and the fundamental values of the Quebec nation.
In addition, Quebec’s Bill 94, An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions was reintroduced at the same stage and subsequently adopted in principle (sent for second reading) in a close vote. This Bill defines the concept of reasonable accommodation; asserts that the government will make any compromise necessary to respect equality between women and men and the principle of religious neutrality of the state; and provides that an accommodation cannot be granted if it would impose an undue hardship on a government department or agency, including education, even to the extent of prohibiting the hijab (veil). You can read all about bill 94 on Slaw here, here, here and here.
The debate over reasonable accommodation, religious orthodoxy in the modern age, and polite discourse on tolerance (a word I’ve come to dislike intensely) seems to have flared up in response to demographic changes in Quebec and Canada. However, the proposed bills have not appeased Quebecers and have not advanced the debate. In addition, the current state of “multiculturalism” seems to mean ambivalence toward a diverse society in Canada.
The “problem” that these measures seek to address is the resurgence of religion in Quebec (particularly Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and others) at a time when the prominence and inflexibility of the Catholic Church are diminishing, which many feel is bringing about a general decline of Western values, including gender equality. One associated challenge is the desire of devout individuals, especially women, to live unreservedly within the segregation of sexes or be subjected to it because of cultural, religious or marital obligations. This forces Quebec to update and clarify the direction it wants to go.
Some believe that the individual rights of persons who have a particular religious faith or important cultural or philosophical commitments must be recognized. Others have rejected any special status for religious beliefs, philosophical or political. Many Quebecers feel that the current stock of proposed answers doesn’t offer the right solution.
As Quebecers publicly debate their values and the code of conduct they want to follow, many groups—citizens and new immigrants, including Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist,Jews and others—are feeling stigmatized by some of the sentiments expressed.
What the Quebec National Assembly and the Parti Quebecois are trying to do with these bills is define the fundamental values of the Quebec nation, and they intend to invoke the notwithstanding clause if their decisions are inconsistent with current case law. Let’s not forget that Quebec is also bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by the interpretation that the Supreme Court of Canada can make.
The question is, and I am not sure I have an answer, does a democratic society like Quebec have the necessary leeway to set its own code of conduct in these matters, without violating any international, federal, natural or immutable rules of law?
Can Quebec legally or practically refrain from accommodating certain groups of people in the face of massive shifts in demographics that have threatened Quebecers’ traditional Catholic identity, even as public agencies and municipal councils across the province refuse to remove Christian iconography from their buildings? Are Quebecers capable of sorting it out among themselves without needing a law or code to tell them how to behave?
It’s also possible that these measures, which are intended to strengthen Quebecers’ identity, might in fact have the opposite effect, weakening progressives’, young people’s and newcomers’ attachment to the Quebec nation. Certainly the future of the debate depends on engaging all people that make up the Quebec nation
Whatever the answer to these existential questions, the current debate is relevant and should take place. Quebec is experiencing a confluence of events that have placed the province’s identity in doubt. In order to move forward, Quebec and its people will need to unite as well as they can, clarify who they are and rebuild their confidence in strength of their culture and nation.