Quebec’s controversial “charter of values”

Top row: "Non-ostentatious" (allowed) displays. Bottom two rows: "Ostentatious" displays that would be banned under the proposed charter. Informational graphic: Quebec government

Top row: “Non-ostentatious” (allowed) displays. Bottom two rows: “Ostentatious” displays that would be banned under the proposed charter. Informational graphic: Quebec government

Do you wear something – anything – that indicates a religious inclination? Does it bother you if someone else does? Is that something government can regulate?

These questions are the subject of intense debate in Quebec and (to a lesser extent) the rest of Canada, thanks to something called the Quebec Charter of Values, unveiled this past Tuesday by the Parti Québécois. (See actual party website, in French only, here. A Wikipedia entry, in English, is here.)

There are so many articles, blogs and reactions to that proposal across Canada that it’s hard to know where to begin, or where to end. Outside of Quebec, at least, the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. But outside of Quebec much of Canada bears little love for the PQ anyway, which is part of this story.

How about starting with what it is, who proposed it and why? Here’s a good summary article from the BBC. The National Post covers the same topic in greater detail here, and says the measure is still a proposal but will be tabled as a bill in the fall.

In short, the measure attempts to foster a secular province, where public sector employees would be prohibited from wearing conspicuous signs of religious affiliation. (In Quebec this would include most teachers, medical personnel, day care workers, police, government office workers, etc.)

Forbidden items would include all manner of Muslim headgear, Sikh turbans, and Jewish skull caps. Large crosses or crucifixes would also be prohibited. While that may sound somewhat religious-neutral (if heavy-handed) at first glance, critics say that it’s bad policy and the actual details defy coherent justification.

This summary list from CBC is noteworthy for what would not be prohibited or changed:


  1. Remove religious symbols and elements considered “emblematic of Quebec’s cultural heritage.” That includes: the crucifixes in the Quebec legislature and atop Mount Royal in Montreal, the thousands of religiously based geographic names (e.g. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!) and the names of schools and hospitals.

  2. Ban public sector employees from wearing small religious symbols like a ring with a Star of David, earrings with the Muslim crescent or a necklace with a small crucifix.

  3. Eliminate subsidies to religious private schools. The Quebec government currently funds about 60 per cent of the budgets of most of the province’s private schools, including parochial ones.

  4. Ban opening prayers at municipal council meetings, which was recommended by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report into cultural accommodation. The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in May that such prayers do not necessarily violate Quebec’s current human rights legislation.

  5. Eliminate property tax exemptions for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings.

Canada’s federal government is watching this carefully. On the one hand, fighting about social issues in Quebec tends to be nothing but trouble. On the other hand, the proposal arguably conflicts with fundamental provisions protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The PQ’s Pauline Marois is the Premier of Quebec, but she heads a minority government, which means measures cannot pass without support from at least one other party. So far that seems unlikely, so why push such a divisive issue?

This analysis piece by James Fitz-Morris discusses larger issues of “political gamesmanship”, and points out that the PQ is not troubled by charges of inconsistency:

“The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage,” according to Bernard Drainville, Quebec’s minister of democratic institutions, the man charged with navigating the new charter through the national assembly.

Meanwhile Drainville is also on record as hoping the policy will be adopted by the private sector as well. “We think private businesses will, essentially, guide themselves from now on with the guidelines that we are giving them, that we are putting into the charter.”

Canada is a nation that courts and welcomes immigrants from around the world and makes a strong effort to promote and protect multi-culturalism. For example, Sikhs have won the right to wear the turban even as uniformed members of the RCMP, police or military. (Uncut hair covered by a turban is a tenant of faith for male Sikhs.)

Indeed, as reported by Global News, at least one hospital in Ontario wasted no time in wooing potentially disaffected Quebec medical professionals:

“We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it,” the ad, released by Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, Ont., reads. It depicts a woman wearing a hijab and a stethoscope.

France is a nation that places a high value on secularism, establishing that preference in law as long ago as 1905. Arguments about that policy arise to this day, as with a recently proposed secularism charter for schools.

Of course, individual cases of religious appearance and practices do arise in the U.S., as with some Mennonites objecting to photo IDs. Or this 2009 USA Today article about US states with laws that prohibit religious attire in schools. (I don’t know if those laws are still in effect.)

On the whole, though, effort to legislate blanket prohibitions on personal expression and appearance would be almost inconceivable in the U.S., given the constitutional protections of religion and expression.

Do you see value in promoting public secularism? Or do you feel religious freedom represents a higher value to protect?

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34 Comments on “Quebec’s controversial “charter of values””

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Actually, in an odd sort of way, I could live with all the 5 points warned/suggested/questioned by the CBC. Factually, I am totally in favor of eliminating all tax breaks – Period.
    But if everyone truly wants to be liberal and let everyone wear whatever, shouldn’t people be allowed to be naked any time and any place they feel like it?
    Nudity could be a religious statement.

  2. Terence says:

    Ontario’s response says it best: “We don’t care what’s on your head — only what’s in it.”

    Does Quebec have a significant problem with state employees who proselytize during working hours? Not so far as I know.

    This is silly legislation that wastes time and creates ill will — and I say that as an atheist. Give me sensible old Ontario any day — and I say that as someone who speaks French.

  3. mervel says:

    What happens is this creates a sense of isolation and imposition on religious minorities. It is imposing a religious view, that view is secularism which is a belief system. It would impact some groups more than others. As a Christian I may wear a small cross now and then, but it is not a mandate of my faith. However for some Muslims and Jew’s the clothing/symbols are a mandate of their faith. So in that regard the law in particular targets only specific religious groups.

    I agree, it seems silly, time consuming and needlessly contentious.

  4. For decades, Quebec was a de facto theocracy, with an unholy alliance between a corrupt conservative government and the Catholic Church. When a liberal government came into place in 1960, they broke with this alliance and the rupture was brutal. This is why religious people should be fearful of the sort of theocracy the Christian right wants to impose in this country. The backlash will be brutal. The anti-religious feeling in places like Quebec and France is much stronger because the religious authorities once were much more oppressive than they ever were in places like the US.

  5. Though ultimately the question is this: do and to what extent employers have the right to mandate their employees’ appearance?

    So let me ask you this: if an employer can’t say employees must be religiously neutral WHILE AT WORK, then can the employer also not say an employee is not allowed to have long hair or a visible tattoo or facial hair, as some employers do?

    Why is religious expression in the work place special in a way that other expression is not?

  6. Mervel says:

    Brian has a good point about the backlash. I think the thing that will always prevent that from happening from a Christian perspective in the US is the diversity of Christian experience and groups in the US. Quebec and France were close to 100% Catholic, the church dominated. In the US you don’t have anywhere close to one Christian group dominating, thus it would be much harder to impose any sort of system as existed in France and Quebec between the Catholic Church and the government.

  7. dave says:

    These are only attire restrictions while on the job, right? A person would still be free to express themselves however they wanted when in public, at home, or in a religious setting… right?

    If so, I am not sure I have a problem with this.

    Of course, I am also not sure I see a need for it…

  8. Paul says:

    What is the point? If I was a voter in Quebec I would be appalled at the waste of time and money on this.

  9. The flip side is that it’s creating an anti-religious atmosphere in Quebec. I support a secular state. I think the PQ is going way overboard for political pandering reasons.

    For example:

  10. Paul says:

    A secular “state” doesn’t mean you strip some folks of what they think is important to them.

  11. Marlo Stanfield says:

    This seems pointless. Has anyone ever been hurt by a public employee wearing a yarmulke, or a crucifix that might’ve been a bit too big? What’s the reason for this?

  12. The Original Larry says:

    Whatever else it is, it isn’t pointless. It’s an opportunity for bigots to disapprove of and restrict religions they hate (most likely jews & muslims) under the guise of “equal treatment”. Makes me sick.

  13. dave says:

    I think it is important to understand and acknowledge the difference between being told you can’t wear or do something… and being told you can’t wear and do something in certain situations. Situations that, by your own free choice, you have decided to be in.

    The former is not what is going on here. The latter is.

  14. The Original Larry says:

    Public employment isn’t a “situation” and practicing one’s religion shouldn’t be a disqualifier from it. Thank God that’s not the case in the US! How convenient that the majority are Christians (how does that work?) for whom wearing a cross is not a requirement. Quebec wants to follow the French lead in this? Go right ahead and become a country that is not taken seriously by anyone outside its own borders.

  15. I’m so glad Or. Larry actually acknowledges public sector workers as human beings. Not a common position in some ideological circles.

    How far does the state need to go to accommodate personal religious beliefs of its workers? Does a conservative female Muslim doctor have the ‘right’ to refuse treatment to a male victim on religious grounds? Does a Christian bureaucrat have the right to refuse to serve a gay customer?

  16. The Original Larry says:

    Sorry to disappoint you, Brian, I know how anxious you are to demonize conservatives. Actually, most of us believe that all people are “human beings”, including liberals.

  17. dave says:

    Who you work for is absolutely a “situation”. It is a choice. You make it, or you don’t. No one is forcing you to work for your government, or any other business.

    If you don’t like the workplace standards in place at your place of employment, you can find a different job.

    Want a job where you can wear a cowboy hat? Or maybe shorts? Or a bathing suit? Or maybe you care more about being able to wear religious clothing? Go get a job where that is allowed or where it is more appropriate.

    All of us have this choice. Quite frankly, I’m not thrilled about what I am and am not allowed to wear when I go to my office. I also don’t like having to shave before I go to the office job. But I abide by those standards. I don’t see why being religious, or being of a certain religion, should grant you an exception to this reality.

  18. The Original Larry says:

    Because this is the government, not private industry. Governments are supposed to promote equality and tolerance, not lead the way into bigotry, ignorance and hatred.

  19. dave says:

    Oh I don’t think this is about hate.

    A lot of government jobs have attire standards… such as expecting you to wear a suit and tie, be cleanly groomed, and not wear hats or excessive jewelry, etc etc… would you claim that they hate guys with beards? Or that they are bigoted against people who prefer to wear shorts and tank tops?

    No of course not.

    So this to you, I have to assume, is all about religion.

    You seem to think religion is cause to grant exceptions to workplace standards. That religious individuals should receive extra consideration in these matters. Be allowed to wear what they want, etc

    I happen to disagree. I do not think religion should grant exceptions to workplace standards. And I think the government in particular should remain decidedly neutral on these issues… and that means equal consideration for everyone, religious or not, which would mean everyone abides by the same standards.

    Listen, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t see a need for this and agree with others who stated that it seems like a waste of time and effort… but I reject the notion that it is based on hate or is somehow “unfair.” What could be more fair then applying the same standards to everyone, regardless of your religion?

  20. The Original Larry says:

    Of course it is about religion and ethnicity too, for that matter. I saw nothing prohibiting sports team logos, rock band names or gang tattoos. It’s a fairly obvious attempt to restrict people who come from other than christian, european backgrounds. I guess it’s “fair” if the Sikh bus driver can’t wear a turban as long as a catholic bus driver can’t wear a papal mitre. And I was worried that this was a serious question.

  21. Mervel says:

    Well I don’t think it is about hate either. I think it is part of creating a truly secular culture and state. This is a value that France has and Quebec is probably leaning that way. One way to do that is to start to wipe public displays of religious devotion from the public square, so you could start with public employees. France has gone further and restricts wearing these in public.

    Certainly these countries do have a right to create the type of society the desire, they don’t have our constitution nor do they have our free speech rights in either Canada or France. That is ok; we are unique in that we also have Nazi’s and other crazy people freely exercising their free speech rights, so free speech is not all good; we in the US however think it is worth the price.

    But no I don’t view it has hate I view it as creating a certain vision of how they want their society and culture to look. I find it sad and depressing, I think of housing blocks in the Soviet Union, whenever a culture unnaturally yanks are and religious expression from itself, it loses something.

  22. The Original Larry says:

    “…how they want their society and culture to look.”

    Yeah right, Quebec and France, two bastions of progressive thought, welcoming and accepting of diversity. Two “countries” with little relevance on the world stage, except perhaps for comedic potential. They want their society and culture white, european and christian. Good luck with that.

  23. OLarry: Quite the opposite. I’m happy when someone acts with an independent mind and is not a lemming to their tribe. Good on you.

  24. Lucy Martin says:

    Larry, I take exception to one aspect of your comments. The anti-France comments seem overtly hostile.

    I mean, does it matter how much relevance France does or does not have on the world stage? After all, the vast majority of countries don’t really rank as so-called main-stage players. Surely those nations, their cultures and their populations are not less worthy of respect than the so-called “big guys”.

    I’m just guessing, but I bet you are not someone who treats rich ‘VIPs’ as more powerful, more important and more worthy of respect than regular folks. So why apply a rank-em-by-power standard to nations?

  25. “Governments are supposed to promote equality and tolerance, not lead the way into bigotry, ignorance and hatred.”

    The govt’s argument is that this is exactly what the charter is intended to promote: a civil service from which all citizens (who fund it) feel they will get a fair shake. I doubt this is the best way.

    But neither you nor anyone else answered my hypothetical. Does a devout Muslim woman bureaucrat have the right to refuse to work with or serve males? Even if she’s emergency personnel?

  26. “nor do they have our free speech rights in either Canada or France. That is ok;”

    Yeah it’s ok except for the whole it being completely false part.

    Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is their Bill of Rights. Articles 10 and 11 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (whose validity is reaffirmed by the current constitution) guarantees the freedom of speech and thought, among others.

    Alright, I’m done interrupting lazy stereotypes with annoying facts.

  27. “What’s the reason for this?”

    Same reason as most grandstanding of this nature: distraction.

    There’s a big investigation into public corruption that’s targeting both major parties in Quebec. A minority government wants to rally its base.

  28. Mervel says:

    Sorry Brian, the Charter does not in practice protect ALL speech as we do in the US; there is not a strict interpretation of freedom of speech. For example not all speech is protected in Canada, you can be arrested for so called hate speech, just the speech or expression itself. In the above example on this topic would certainly show that freedom of expression is not protected in Canada. The same holds in France. We just have a different view of freedom of expression in the US. If you had a truly protected freedom of speech and expression it would be impossible to impose hate speech legislation. I can freely fly the Nazi flag in the US, this is not the case in France or Germany. In Canada I can be arrested for a variety of types of speech (for certain this is speech which I despise, but that is the point for strict protections of speech, even the most horrible speech must be protected). In France I can be arrested for wearing different types of Muslim garb. Not a lazy stereotype at all.

    But my point was that is fine for those countries. They have a long tradition of attempting to create a totally secular culture, it is part of their value system, which is fine. There are benefits to doing this.

    Like I said it in my mind creates a boring, depressing society however it also protects against differences people do not like and creates less division in society.

  29. Mervel says:

    I do think the French example has been influenced by the Franco-phobes, France for the French!

  30. Marlo Stanfield says:

    To answer your hypotheticals about a Muslim woman refusing to work with men, or a devout Christian refusing to serve a homosexual … No, those wouldn’t be protected actions. But that’s the difference, those are actions that actively infringe on the rights of another individual. Not the same ballpark as wearing a garment or a piece of jewelry that expresses your religious heritage.

    Serving or treating whatever people come in is a basic part of those jobs; if your religion won’t allow you to perform that job you should find another line of work.

  31. Mervel says:

    Exactly correct.

    You have to perform the duties of the job you agreed to perform, that usually includes treating all people with dignity and respect it also may have some restrictions on what you can wear as it relates to the technical aspects of doing the job.

    If your religious faith runs contrary to the operations of an organization certainly you should not work there.

  32. Mervel: We have a broader interpretation of freedom of speech here that virtually anywhere else but it’s not true that all speech is protected in the US. Slander. Defamation. Incitement. The proverbial “fire in a crowded theater”…

  33. mervel says:

    That is true.

  34. Walker says:

    Ask Julian Assange about our free speech rights.

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