Including Secularism in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights

On Tuesday, September 10, 2013, Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government led by Pauline Marois released its proposal for a Charter of Quebec Values, which would decree the religious neutrality of the state and its employees and management of religious accommodation. This is not the province’s first attempt. In 2009 and 2011, Marois presented bills “to assert the fundamental values of the Québec Nation,” which we wrote about previously on Slaw here. Going further back, the Quebec government says these measures sprouted naturally from the seed planted over 50 years ago in the Quiet Revolution (Révolution tranquille).

Quebec’s citizenry is more diverse than 50 years ago, and diverse religion is a central fact of that diversity. With Quebec and Canada facing the challenge of accommodating myriad religious variations, we should have expected the issue of religious neutrality to return. Now there are many more voices to participate in the debate—and to disagree.

So what’s new? Nothing really!

The charter would express four values:

  • Equality between men and women
  • Equality for all
  • The religious neutrality of the state
  • Respect for Quebec’s cultural heritage

The controversy has less to do with the values than with how the government proposes to apply them. The government has presented five proposals:

  1. Entrench accommodation requests in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and outline the conditions under which an accommodation could be granted. Accommodations would have to respect equality between women and men, put a stop to an act of discrimination, be reasonable, and, in the case of the government institutions, not compromise the institution’s neutrality. The Charter would explicitly indicate the separation of religion and state, the religious neutrality of the state and the secular nature of its public institutions, while taking into account Quebec’s heritage (including the fundamental role the Catholic religion has played in the province’s history).
  2. Establish in law a duty of restraint and religious neutrality for government employees in the performance of their duties. In other words, no employee shall make her or his function an instrument of propaganda or religious beliefs.
  3. Regulate the wearing of ostentatious and conspicuous religious symbols by government employees during working hours (certain sectors—e.g., cégeps, universities, public health and social services institutions, and municipalities—would have the right to withdraw from the application of the Charter for up to five years, renewable in some cases. See Simon’s post for details.
  4. Make it mandatory that people requesting services from the government or providing services on behalf of the government have their face uncovered, disclosed and visible.
  5. Establish a policy for all government ministries and organizations to implement religious neutrality of the state and the management of religious accommodation for all government bodies and agencies.

However, historic crucifixes in the National Assembly and other government buildings, the cross on Mount Royal and Christmas trees will not be disposed of because they are part of Quebec’s heritage. It is also important to note that elected members of the national assembly will not be subject to the regulations.

Quebecers have the opportunity to make known their views on the proposal through a website and a dedicated phone line. Taking into account the comments received, the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville, will introduce proposed legislation incorporating the above five proposals later this fall.

Although I cannot say I am in agreement with the language of the proposal, I do think that most of the measures it would enshrine are necessary. The unfortunate thing is the debate is bringing forth irrelevant comments and assumptions.

This Charter of Values would not stop Quebec citizens from whatever culture from expressing or practicing their religious beliefs or doctrine, nor would it threaten individual rights and freedoms. The charter and associated proposals indicate a concerted effort to ensure the Quebec government and its employees remain neutral with respect to religion in the performance of their duties and obligations.

The charter would ban the wearing of kippas, turbans, burkas, hijabs and “large” crosses for civil servants while they are on the job. The prohibition regarding the wearing of religious symbols applies to workplaces in the public sector, not in the street or in the privacy of citizens’ homes. Leaving your cross or your head scarf from 9 to 5 to work for the government is not an imposition nor does it remove from who you are.

As stated by Drainville,

“If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image.”

The Parti Quebecois is telling Quebecers that when performing duties on behalf of the government, public employees are neutral representatives of Quebec, and must serve the public in a neutral way. In a sense, while working, they are functionaries first and citizens second: they should hold Quebec’s values above their own.

The extension of religious freedom is a threat to equality, democracy and social cohesion. Secularism and neutrality of the state are the only guarantees believers have to not see their religion interfered with on behalf of another. Whether restricting a person’s freedom to wear religious symbols truly aids this goal of neutrality remains an open question.


  1. How is this “not an imposition”? While most sects of Christianity do not require that adherents to wear what the PQ considered “ostentatious” symbols of faith, a number of faiths or sects do require that. Forcing those individuals to remove their religious garments is requiring them to sin, just as it would be to force Hutterite women to wear miniskirts. It is certainly an imposition on their freedom.

    Moreover, the rationale behind the law is nonsensical. How is a Muslim woman wearing a hijab in a position to influence preschool children to practice religion any more than a Christian woman wearing a small cross necklace? Or a Muslim woman not wearing a hijab? The Charter, as proposed, is blatantly unconstitutional and discriminatory towards the thousands of public service employees of all faiths in Quebec whose personal religious beliefs have absolutely no impact on the services that they provide.

    Finally, if the aim is in fact to make the state neutral and secular, then the ostentatious crosses and Madonna niches should be removed from all government facilities, and Catholic prayers should not be part of provincial or municipal sittings and meetings. The sheer hypocrisy of leaving these items in place makes it evident that the PQ goal is not, in fact, a secular state, but a Christian one.

  2. This is a repulsive, obscene and racist Bill. There is nothing neutral about being fired from a job you have held, perhaps for decades, because some vague political agenda now deems your head covering to be unacceptable. There is nothing neutral about legislation that would blatantly contravene human rights codes throughout the rest of Canada. Quebec is not a squeaky, white and Christian province, and misguided efforts to ethnically cleanse the outer appearance of public service will not make it so.

    These clumsy attempts to rationalize and legitimate racial discrimination and the human harm that flows therefrom, all in the name of “neutrality,” are beneath Quebec, beneath Canada and certainly beneath Slaw.

  3. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and, now, secularité, Yosie?

    Instead of a physical guillotine, the PQ’s punishment will be a financial guillotine. Will we have metaphorical crone equivalents with modern knitting needles? Would those be some sort of communication device that permits the crones to weave stories?

    Who decides if the white Californian wearing dreads in a large wool cap is merely brain-dead dude making a cultural statement rather than Rastafarian wearing an obvious religious symbol?

    What about somebody whose face or hands are tattooed with religious symbols? Is okay if they’re small and obvious.

    How big could the shaven spot in a monk’s tonsure be before it’s too obvious?

    Would a small wimple be permitted a nun who is otherwise prepared to wear civilian clothes?

    Or just a headscarf?

    Speaking of headscarves, would there be verobotten colours? White, red and black all have subtext.

    How about if I have a visible cross in the the middle of my forehead? Is that permissible if it’s a birthmark or a scar but not if it’s a tattoo?

    How about the numbers 666? Or would I have to hide them in my hair?

    What about names such as Jesus, or any name ending in “el”?

    What would you do if being a women of colour suddenly became a presumptive indication of one’s religious beliefs? You could, of course, do a Michael Jackson. That might resolve one problem.

    What about the argument that Atheism is as much a religion as any of the Abraham theisms? I’ll borrow and paraphrase a line said about Paul Dirac.

    Will there be a Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing the victims of the Revolution?

    What about a Sidney Carton?

    Who will be the members of Citizen Marois’s Committee of Public Safety? If she is to be Robespierre, who will be Saint-Just or Couthon? And who’ll play Corday to Marat?

    Will the PQ outlaw any state involvement in Saint Jean Baptise Day?

    Outlaw state involvement in the worship of St Patrick (Roy)? What about the triumvirate: St. Jean, St. Richard, and St. Henri?

    By analogy, wouldn’t that mean that the PQ shouldn’t get involved in any aspect of a hockey team in Quebec City?

    I suspect some competent comic(s) will have better things to say about this at the next Mtl Comedy festival.

  4. The Dirac line was said by Pauli: “Yes, yes, our friend Dirac has a religion, and its creed runs: ‘There is no God, and Dirac is his prophet.’ ”

    Modified for my purpose, it’s: Yes, yes, our friend Marois has a religion, and its creed runs: ‘There can be no God, but I’m still the prophet.’ “

  5. “Whether restricting a person’s freedom to wear religious symbols truly aids this goal of neutrality remains an open question”? And “[l]eaving your cross or your head scarf from 9 to 5 to work for the government is not an imposition nor does it remove from who you are”? Um, what are you talking about? This bill is stunningly, painfully, dumb, so let me help you out here. No, restricting a person’s freedom to wear religious symbolys doesn’t aid in the goal of neutrality. And, yeah, it’s kind of a big imposition, and yeah, it kind of does remove from who you are. That is why everyone who is affected by this is talking about LEAVING QUEBEC. That is not something you do because you weren’t imposed on. It’s something you do because it is a major freaking imposition.

    Sorry, but I am faintly stunned to see this piece on Slaw. I can only shudder to think what else constitute “open questions” by this standard.

  6. So Serge, if I had the same opinion with all of you than it would be OK for me to post on Slaw? Do you know the definition of constructive debate, differing opinions and freedom of expression and the right to disagree!

    I trust that I have stated an objective overview of the proposals, and my personal opinion respectfully to incite a constructive debate.

  7. My impression of Serge’s message wasn’t that he was challenging your right to post but, rather, expressing surprise that that opinion would appear from a Slaw contributor; or, at least the seeming naivete of the post.. However, perhaps I am wrong about that.

    In any event, were you staking out a debating position, Yosie, or stating your opinion.

    If the latter, then tell me why you believe the any person with adequate understanding of Western values would believe that the fact the documents clerk, who is help me find by grandfather’s birth certificate, is wearing a a black wimple, a black blouse and skirt, Doc Martins, and a large, upside down, cross means the Quebec state supports Satanism? Or some version of death metal?

    (As Woody Allan might have said, he could be a cross-dressing Italian widow(er) or a Greek Orthodox priest with ocular issues.)

    Trudeau and Richler would have slavered over the meal the CSV will provide competent satirists.


  8. Please define to me what a Slaw contributor is and what they are allowed to post or should be posting in your opinion? I gave an overview of the legal proposals and then expressed my opinion on the issue. I believe this is what Slaw is all about. Please feel free to disagree with me, but do it respectfully! It is not because you completely disagree with these proposals and someone who agrees with them that the post is necessarily naïve.

    And Gary, why would this post be beneath Slaw because I can rationalize the Quebec initiative?!

    As to your question, I cannot respond to your comment David because honestly it does not make any sense to me within this debate.

    Also, please define to me what are accepted Western values? In Canada, there have been many challenges to diversity, uniformity and conformity, and there continues to be and it makes people anxious and uncomfortable.

    Thus, the debate and the need to define what Western values are! Maybe the Quebec government is not going about it the way the rest of Canada would like… maybe their proposals are small minded and Patriarchal (it is part of their heritage) but at least they have started a debate that is needed in Canada and has been most revealing!

    The impending Bill may not pass… so be it… but the exercise (in my opinion) has been useful!

  9. I’ll simplify it for you, Yosie.

    Why do you think that the mere fact anybody wears an obvious religious symbol puts whatever might be Quebec’s secular values at risk?

    This isn’t about promoting tolerance. It’s about institutionalizing intolerance. But, then, Parizeau’s slip gave that away, didn’t it?

  10. I agree completely that the delivery of services by the state should be free of religious bias – so anyone of whatever religion or none should get the same service from the state. Thus a marriage commissioner (a state official) should not be able to refuse to perform a legal same-sex (or opposite religion) marriage because the commissioner’s personal religion would not allow such a marriage. (I had thought that Yosie had defended such commissioners’ rights to dissent, previously, but I have not gone to look that up.)

    That is a completely different question than whether the person receiving the services can tell what the religious beliefs of the person providing the services are. And frankly, you can’t tell very much from the clothes or ornaments, anyway. Does the cowl make the monk? Do clothes make the man? I expect there is a range of adherence to Judaic principles among wearers of kippas, and a range of expression of Islam among wearers of hijabs. Probably good Sikhs and not-so-good Sikhs wear turbans.

    The question in any event is the even-handedness of the services provided. The rest is an unreasonable barrier to the occupancy of a state job.

    It is again a completely different question whether someone should be able to receive a service from the state while her (or his) face is covered. Sometimes one’s identity is not important to one’s eligibility for a service. Even when it is, there are more ways than facial identification to prove it. Until a year or so ago, no photo ID was needed to vote in this country (and in the US, asking for photo ID to vote is widely considered discriminatory against the poor). If one does not need a photo ID, why should one have to show one’s face? A voter’s card or other proof of identity or residence, or an oath or affirmation to the returning officer, would suffice.

    One of the most nefarious consequences of the Quebec government’s appeal to the biases of its rural voters is to impair the integration into society of those who have often been reluctant to integrate. As I said in the other thread, I believe that these measures are aimed primarily at Muslim women. If a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or veil becomes a citizen and wants to vote, or wants to work for the state and is otherwise qualified, we should be encouraging her with open arms. As we should for any immigrant, of course, but there are important standoffish elements in some communities, and defectors from those elements to the general society should be welcomed.

    I think some good hard evidence is needed that people with religious dress working for the public sector in Quebec have discriminated on religious grounds in delivering public services. (And if they have, will making them dress differently make them change their ways? This is not about the provision of services but the comfort of those receiving them – and the government’s measures are well over the line of acceptability in the search for cultural comfort.)

    In the absence of evidence of religious-based favouritism, the policy is a solution in search of a problem – or a solution to a different, unannounced (though widely speculated on) problem, namely how to attract rural votes to the PQ in a not-very-separatist political climate when the economy is tanking.

  11. Here is Yosie’s comment in January 2011 about marriage commissioners in SK being compelled by the courts to marry same-sex couples: “All the same, I’m sure that if my employer required me to act contrary to my beliefs, I would protest and either demand accommodation or leave the job. Others might simply continue in the job but with low morale, reduced productivity and high resentment toward the employer.”

    However, she has also wondered, without answering personally, how much the wearing of religious costumes should be protected. Here is a further discussion of the European experience.

    Yosie and everyone else is free to support or criticize any policy or legal decision. Slaw itself has no opinions, so far as I know. I personally am a bit surprised at her defence of Quebec’s choices on this issue, because of her consistent defence of human rights and employee rights in her postings here over the years.

    If one is going to suppress a human right, one would like to see some evidence of the need for doing so. To date, rien de rien, as we say in the other national language.

  12. Two useful links, both on the Globe & Mail website.

    The first uses light satire.

    Any satire in the content of the second was probably not intended.

  13. La Presse has reported that the opinion of Justice Québec lawyers is that the measures are contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
    Revealingly, the provincial Minister of Justice has not denied this:

  14. Religious clothing and symbols are a non-verbal language that expresses the faith, beliefs and values of the person who wears it and that is why he or she wants to wear it. People who wear religious symbols do that deliberately and intentionally to convey a message and point without words. I have done it myself on one or two occasions.

    But as a government official, this position gives the official the authority to help and assist other citizens (whether they are from your culture or not), and administer/enforce/impose the laws, policies etc. of that government. Because there are very diverse cultures and religion in Canada, a government official is there to represent all citizens of various cultures and religions and not just one culture or religion within Canada. There must be an appearance of neutrality. It is the right of the user of government services not to be served by a government employee/agent who delivers him a religious discourse while the service of the state is supposed to be neutral. To put predominance on this display of clothing and symbols means that the beliefs of that government employee are placed above the values conveyed by the State.

    To maintain this neutrality of the State… it should apply to all religions even the one of the majority… I do believe that crucifixes should be removed from all government institutions as well. However, the cross on Mount Royal is a historical monument and tourist attraction and is not really seen as a religious symbol… and the Christmas tree has loss all religious connotations and should be left alone.

    In addition, there should be no right of withdrawal… this proposal should apply to all government institutions.

    Yes I believe in individual human rights, however, I do also staunchly believe in the separation of religion and the state and do not believe that wanting the government to be secular will stop or impede on individual human rights. In my previous posts, I did also say “Religious freedom also means that one group in society cannot impose its religious beliefs on another group with a different view…”

    Religion-State separation is a pre-condition for the free exercise of human rights. It is true that such separation does not guarantee human rights but it has been proven again and again that lack of it can threaten human rights.

    I did also say… “Secularism and neutrality of the state are the only guarantees believers have to not see their religion interfered with on behalf of another… Whether restricting a person’s freedom to wear religious symbols truly aids this goal of neutrality remains an open question.”

    A point that was brought up by Daniel Baril, anthropologist and journalist, and I think is important in the debate… “The wearing of religious symbols or clothing is not part of the freedom of religion as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which limits the freedom to the right to have a religion, to transmit/convey/communicate and to practice the rites (Article 18).”

    In most part, the wearing of religious symbols is not a mandatory practice of a rite nor should it have anything to do with religious freedom.

    I don’t have a solution… I don’t have the answers… but I agree that there is a problem within Canada regarding “identity” and the “effects of pluralism”… Western society has changed and is changing because of pluralism. The discourse is needed.

    I don’t believe the language of Quebec’s proposals are totally right… but I also believe that it is not totally misguided.

  15. Josie, while I cannot agree with your position, I thank you for your well reasoned argument in defense of the Quebec Charter. I am somewhat disappointed with the tone of some of the comments above. I would hope that slaw continues to be a forum where issues of this sort can be vigorously – but respectfully – debated.