Quebec’s war on religion

By pandering to ethnic nationalism, the PQ is playing a cynical and dangerous game

Roger Lemoyne

Imam Sayyed Nabil Abbas stood with roughly 40 faithful at his feet for Friday afternoon prayers at Montreal’s Lebanese Islamic Centre. After greeting each with a handshake, Abbas launched into an hour-long khotbah, or pre-prayer speech, decrying the Parti Québécois’s proposed “values charter,” which would ban Quebec’s public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. “This Quebec charter is an attack not only on Muslims, but on Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and others,” Abbas said. “Now we are meant to live our lives differently, forcing us to ask the question: do we leave Quebec?”

The very next morning, across Montreal’s many geographical and religious divides, came a very similar sentiment. “The reason us Jews have flourished in North America is because we came to countries that allow us personal religious freedom,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko to the hundreds of Jewish faithful gathered at the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation for Yom Kippur. “We all know what happens in those countries that don’t.”

The fury was hardly contained to Montreal’s places of worship. Later that day a stream of people stretching 11 city blocks—many in the very religious garb the PQ seeks to limit—snaked through the city’s downtown core, chanting “La charte à la poubelle!” (the charter in the garbage!) and “Marois raciste!”—a reference to Premier Pauline Marois.

“She is committing economic and cultural genocide,” said Surjit Singh, a 42-year-old financial adviser, as the bells of St. John the Evangelical church rang in support of the marchers. “It’s very hard to tell your children that if you follow your religion then you can’t get a job. We will fight while we can. If we lose, then we have to leave.” The spectre of losing even one immigrant caused medical secretary (and avowed secularist) Marie-Josée Bernier to don a novelty-sized gold cross and take to the streets. “We will lose a lot of good doctors and a lot of good nurses” should the charter become law, she said.

After laying dormant for five years, the issue of religion and identity within Quebec society has awoken, kicking and screaming, once again. In what is either an essential measure to set societal rules (if you believe the Parti Québécois line) or a cynical ploy to regain electoral favour (if you believe just about everyone else), the sovereignist party has essentially declared the next election won’t be fought over the separation of Quebec, but on separating the pious from the symbols of their faith.

The loud and near-instantaneous backlash against the PQ’s values charter has already caused the party to backtrack somewhat, with ministers saying they are open to compromise. As it stands, though, the PQ’s plan is divisive, to put it mildly. A recent Léger Marketing poll suggested 43 per cent of Quebecers supported the charter, while 42 per cent opposed it. Not coincidentally, it has pitted the cosmopolitan island of Montreal against the vast and largely homogenous hinterland beyond it. It also led to the removal of Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani—the party’s only Montreal MP, its sole elected woman and its only visible minority—when she suggested the charter was an example of “ethnic nationalism.” There have also been reported incidents of Muslim women being attacked for wearing the hijab, while a mosque in Saguenay was sprayed with what appeared to be pig’s blood.

The vitriol has spread onto social media networks and the airwaves. “We need to keep our culture,” a resident of the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne told Radio-Canada following a press conference with Pauline Marois. “Right now we are being invaded.”

For the Parti Québécois, which has struggled to find a resonating issue, limiting supposed religious indulgences amongst its public sector employees struck a chord particularly with what former Péquiste premier Jacques Parizeau proudly called the Nous: white, francophone, old-stock Quebecers. A full 80 per cent of self-identifying Péquistes said they agreed with the idea of a charter. And if the charter has drawn the ire of many Canadians from other parts of the country, that’s perhaps all the better for a government quick to point to Quebec bashing.

This isn’t a particularly new debate. Just how much cultural and religious space should be given to new arrivals is an enduring issue across the country and much of the Western world. Indeed, recent polls suggest a surprising amount of support for the PQ’s Quebec values charter outside the province. Yet in turning to the reductionist (and some would say dangerous) precepts of ethnic nationalism—and using them as an electoral battle horse—the PQ has effectively turned its back on founding PQ premier René Lévesque’s vision for Quebec, and given up on anyone who isn’t part of the Nous.

At its heart, the PQ’s Quebec values charter is a simple affair. Any outsized religious garb—a Muslim head covering, a Jewish kippah, a Sikh turban, an overly large crucifix—would be banished from the bodies of anyone drawing a paycheque from Quebec’s public service. It would further amend Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to include a formal declaration of the neutrality of the state, and make it mandatory that anyone giving or receiving a government service do so with his or her face uncovered—an apparent reference to the Muslim niqab.

Yet much of the proposed law remains vague. What, for instance, constitutes an “overt and conspicuous” religious symbol? Does it include, say, Rastafarian dreadlocks, a Muslim man’s beard, or religious tattoos? And what happens to those who, like Surjit Singh, would sooner die (or move to Ontario) than remove their religious accoutrements?

PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville only said the law would be implemented “humanely.” “We are going to sit down with these women and explain [the law] to them,” Drainville said during the charter’s unveiling, which included rather sterile diagrams of the verboten religious garb. Drainville also said how he hoped the private sector, inspired by the PQ initiative, would impose a similar charter.

No one at Quebec’s Secretariat for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship could tell Maclean’s what happens if these people didn’t acquiesce—though Drainville said municipal governments, hospitals and post-secondary schools could apply for a renewable five-year exemption clause to the charter.

“We aren’t there yet,” said Drainville spokesperson Bryan Gélinas of enforcing the charter. “You have to respect the law, but we don’t think anyone will lose their job over this.”

What is clear, however, is how the charter would overwhelmingly affect Montreal. According to Statistics Canada figures, nearly 87 per cent of immigrants coming to Quebec settle within the island’s 500 sq. km. Quebec City, the province’s second-largest immigration destination, receives about three per cent. The demographics have meant Montreal is Quebec’s enduring bête noire, a bracing counterpoint to the province surrounding it.

At one point in time, it was also fertile ground for the Parti Québécois. The party won 15 of Montreal’s 29 ridings in 1976, when it first formed a government. Under Lévesque’s leadership, the PQ aggressively courted the immigrant vote. Poet and eventual Péquiste immigration minister Gérald Godin saw Quebec as a beacon for “the uprooted men and women who came to make a life in our corner of the globe.”

“We made enormous progress amongst the neo-Quebecer population,” said former Péquiste premier Bernard Landry, who in the PQ’s earlier days was given the often thankless task of convincing immigrants to vote for a sovereignist party. “We had a very interesting rapprochement with the Jewish community. We recruited David Levine, who eventually became health minister.”

Times have changed. Today, the PQ has only six of Montreal’s 28 ridings; the party draws much its support from staunchly nationalist ridings like Chicoutimi and Rimouski, where immigrants make up less than two per cent of the population. The party is also pursuing support in the northern and southern suburbs flanking the city, where more and more francophone families are settling. (Blainville, a mostly francophone exurb of Montreal, has grown by nearly 16 per cent since 2006.) Meanwhile, 49 per cent of Montrealers are against the charter, according to the poll—the highest level in the province.

There is a certain irony to Marois’s pursuit of the off-island vote. During the 2012 election, Marois aligned herself with the so-called “maple spring” student protests over tuition hikes, which originated in (and drew most of its support from) Montreal. Then-premier Jean Charest, meanwhile, courted the conservative sensibilities of off-island voters—the very voters Marois is seeking today.

Indeed, the recent protest against the PQ’s proposed charter began from the same spot in downtown Montreal, and had a similar raucous, pot-banging atmosphere, of the student protests of yore—minus the mass arrests and tear-gas crescendos.

Mathieu Gionet, 20, marched in the student protests in 2012, and found himself on the same streets with the same fury just over a year later. “The position of the PQ is practically xenophobic,” said the university student, the red square emblem of the student protest pinned to his chest. “I’m an inclusive indépendantiste, and taking to the street is the most beautiful way to show how we feel.”

For Will Prosper, the values debate wrought by the PQ smacks of a “Stephen Harper-style wedge politics.” Born to a Haitian father and a Québécoise mother, Prosper is a community organizer, former RCMP officer and proud indépendantiste who once ran for the sovereignist Québec Solidaire party. Like many prominent sovereignists, former Bloquiste Maria Mourani included, Prosper says focusing on religious and cultural minorities will only hurt the sovereignist movement in the long run.

“With this charter, the Péquiste government only accentuates the perception among immigrants that if Quebec ever attains its independence, there will be two types of citizens: Marois’s ‘Nous’, and the others who may have different colour skin, differently shaped eyes, or who wear a headscarf, a kippah or a turban,” he said. “We need to find a way to open the off-island regions to Montreal’s reality and reverse the perception that the city is a debaucherous hellhole filled with immigrant barbarians who attend public stonings on Saturday nights.”

Bernard Landry, the former premier, remembers being in the room where then-premier Jacques Parizeau gave his notorious speech blaming “money and ethnic votes” for the narrow loss of the 1995 referendum. Parizeau’s words, preceded as they were by his numerous references to the ethnocentric Nous, changed the tone in the room, Landry said. “I was surrounded by neo-Québécois people who weren’t born in the province, and who supported independence. They had tears in their eyes after Parizeau’s speech. They were completely shaken by his words.”

Yet he sees the PQ’s charter as a necessary step to integrate immigrants into Quebec society. “Immigrants themselves are the first victims of non-integration,” Landry said. The unemployment rate of recent immigrants is more than double the rate of Canadian-born Quebecers and, at 11.9 per cent, the highest of any province, according to Statistics Canada figures.

Landry says the charter is also necessary to curb the apparently increasing number of “unreasonable accommodations” afforded to religious minorities—though he is frustratingly vague on specific cases of deferring to the religious convictions of immigrants.

Landry says he heard of cases in which civil servants with Transport Québec refused to take a driver’s test because the instructor was of the opposite sex. (A Transport Québec spokesperson said there is no record of any such incident; Audrey Chaput of the province’s motor vehicles department says “there are less than five” religious accommodations made by the department every year.)

He also cites the case of a Hasidic Jewish male refusing to interact with a female Montreal police officer—though no such incident was ever reported. Rather, an internal Montreal police newsletter published guidelines in 2006 recommending women police officers defer to their male colleagues when dealing with Hasidic men. “There’s no record of any such incident between a Hasidic Jewish man and a female police officer,” a Montreal police spokesperson told Maclean’s.

In any event, Landry said, the PQ doesn’t necessarily need “ethnic votes” to win an eventual referendum, should one ever occur. All that needs to happen is for old-stock Québécois to vote en masse for Quebec separation. “Montreal is important and winning with diversity is fantastic. But winning is winning, and that’s great too,” said the former premier.

To be fair, the often-ugly debate over the place of religion and immigrants in Western society is hardly unique to Quebec. A recent Angus-Reid poll suggested 44 per cent of Albertans and 40 per cent of Ontarians support measures similar to the PQ’s values charter. Something else worth remembering: Ontario, home to the country’s largest number of immigrants, also has the second-highest provincial rate of reported hate crimes in the country, according to Statistics Canada. With 2.2 incidences per 100,000 people, Quebec has by far the lowest rate of reported hate crimes among the four provinces—Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta—that welcome the lion’s share of immigrants to Canada.

Still, there’s no question, as shown by the recent protest and outraged comments from religious leaders, that immigrants in Quebec are suddenly wary of state efforts to target their values and beliefs.

But while the charter, introduced as a well-placed media leak less than a month ago, galvanized the PQ’s support and had surprising resonance beyond the party’s traditional base, that support appears to be softening. The batch of Léger Marketing polls bookending the charter’s initial release in the media and the subsequent fallout tell an interesting story. For whatever reason—prevailing cooler heads, perhaps, or just simple issue fatigue—support for the charter in Quebec nosedived by 14 percentage points over a three-week span. The Parti Québécois has apparently taken note, and has already begun backtracking. “We will listen and then see how we can improve the proposed charter,” said PQ minister Jean-François Lisée on Tuesday. “Ms. Marois always tells us that we must be firm on the objectives but soft on the means.”

Such a compromise seems inevitable. If Imam Abbas and Rabbi Poupko—not to mention the several thousand people in the streets—are any indication, Quebec’s religious minorities won’t likely part with their conspicuous religious symbols any time soon.

“The only dignified thing to do in the face of this is to wear an even bigger yarmulke. Ladies, get a big, garish Magen David”—the Star of David—“and wear it wherever you go,” said Poupko. His flock chuckled, more determined than ever.

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