The charter may be gone, but Quebec’s identity crisis remains

Bill 60 may have been deservedly punted, but the larger issue of identity in Quebec has hardly gone away

It’s tempting to think that the Parti Québécois’s wretched “Quebec values charter” disappeared along with the party’s electoral defeat in April. Strictly speaking, it did. The PQ campaigned mightily on the forced removal of “conspicuous” religious garb from the bodies of its public servants. Quebecers instead went with the Liberals. The province’s go-to federalist party has little appetite for the “identity issues” of language and religion. La Charte, c’est fini (“The charter is finished”), lamented its chief architect and salesman, former PQ minister Bernard Drainville, four days after the election. Bon débarras, as they say around here. Good riddance.

Purposefully leaked to the populist Journal de Montréal late last summer, the charter was at once a surrogate for the moribund issue of sovereignty and an electoral gambit that cynically appealed to Quebecers’ insecurities about immigration and the survival of the French language. Thankfully, it didn’t work.

Yet while Bill 60, the proposed law, may have been deservedly punted to a particularly hot corner of legislative hell, the larger issue of identity in Quebec has hardly gone away. While Drainville’s charter may have been an electoral dud—in part, as poll researcher Claire Durand pointed out, it actually helped mobilize the non-francophone vote in Montreal—the fears about immigration, religiosity, and the place of non-francophones in Quebec society still very much exist. The Liberal government will have little choice but to address these concerns with legislation of its own—raising the spectre of not only another noisy, ugly public debate, but of bad legislation as well.

As poll after poll after poll demonstrated, a majority of francophone Quebecers supported the charter. Though this support wasn’t perhaps deep enough to be the major electoral issue the PQ had hoped, identity issues have long been a source of insecurity in the province. Traditionally, the Liberal Party of Quebec has tried to steer well clear of anything identity-related—only to be forced into doing something by the opposition.

In 2010, roughly after the often-tedious collective airing of grievances known as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, the Liberal government introduced Bill 94, which effectively said that anyone giving or receiving a government service will do so with their faces uncovered. It was a canny piece of legislation, in that it mentioned nary a niqab or burqa (or any religious garment for that matter.) Rather, the niqab-wearing woman would be treated exactly the same as the guy wearing a ninja mask. Wear what you please, in other words, but you’ll have to remove your religious- or Halloween-themed face covering when renewing your licence or going to school.

Popular as it was, the PQ critiqued the bill as being too soft, and refused to vote for it. Though he had a majority, Jean Charest very sensibly thought a bill dealing with fundamental human rights should receive unanimous consent. It didn’t and it died, ultimately paving the way for Drainville’s charter two-and-a-half years later.

Having returned to power, the Liberals will soon unveil new legislation regarding the wearing of religious garb in the public sector. As with all issues relating to identity, the party will do so begrudgingly, if only to stave off another “reasonable accommodations” debacle it can only lose, and to starve the opposition PQ of a potent talking point. In all likelihood, that legislation will be some version of Bill 94. And that could well be a problem.

Any legislation of this nature stands a good chance of provoking another divisive spleen-venting within Quebec society—if not a court challenge. Flashpoints are easy to come by. Among them were the frosted windows at a Montreal YMCA. In 2007, the community centre agreed to partially cover their street-level windows, so that little Jewish boys would be spared the sight of naked, sweaty flesh.

Fanned by the Journal’s tabloidy outrage, this agreement made between a group of citizens and a private enterprise was quickly and wrongly spun into a cautionary tale of “immigrants” (the Hasidim have actually been here for over half a century) asking too much of the state. Then there was the outrage over the cabane à sucre that dared offer its Muslim clients a prayer space and pork-free baked beans.

A reaction to this faux-debate, Bill 94 was cursed with some decidedly flighty language. The bit about having one’s face uncovered while giving or receiving a government service wasn’t actually a rule but a “practice.” It made no mention of what would happen if someone deviated from this practice by, say, wearing a niqab to school. Further, any requested exemption from the “practice” would be denied if it meant compromising “security, communication or identification”—a broad stroke far too open to interpretation.

“Bill 94, sensibly interpreted, did not lead to a general prohibition against having a covered face,” McGill constitutional law professor Robert Leckey points out. “What I worry about, though, is that even adopting such legislation, passing into law the ‘practice’ of showing the face, might lead some officials to think that they should refuse accommodations as a matter of course.”

Finally, there’s the matter of the media, the Journal in particular, which will probably frame Liberal legislation as “Bill 60 lite,” as Leckey says. It’s an uncomfortable truth: wretched as it may have been, the Charter was popular in Quebec—particularly amongst the vote-rich Baby Boomer generation. The Liberals know this. In trying to appease Quebecers’ insecurity, one can only hope (even pray) the the government doesn’t stoke their irrational fears once again.