Just months after Quebec had at last emerged from waves of violent student protests over higher education funding, the prospect of another divisive row looms after the provincial government announced plans that would force secularisation on staff working in higher education.
The separatist government of Pauline Marois – whose election as premier last year finally brought to an end the strife over higher tuition charges – has moved to ban public employees from wearing turbans, hijabs and kippas as well as “overt and conspicuous” crosses, Stars of David or crescents. This would include university academics.
The “Quebec Charter of Values” aims to make the province visibly religiously neutral, thus aligning it more closely with France’s laïcité model of secularism.
Ms Marois even cited multiculturalism in the UK as a reason why such proposals were necessary. “In England, they’re knocking each other over the head and throwing bombs because of multiculturalism and nobody knowing any more who they are in that society,” she told Le Devoir, a French-language newspaper, just days before the charter was revealed.
Bernard Drainville, the minister for democratic institutions and active citizenship, avoided such incendiary comments when he unveiled the charter at a news conference on 10 September. Nevertheless, he declared, “the time has come for us to rally around clear rules and common values that will put an end to tensions and misunderstandings” that stem from the public display of religious affiliation.
However, opposition politicians in Quebec and federal Canadian leaders have been withering in their criticism.
Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau – son of the late Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister in 1982 entrenched multiculturalism in the Canadian constitution – called the proposed charter an “abomination”.
A provision in the proposed bill could allow universities to opt out of the charter for five years. But such an exemption has been dismissed by critics as unworkable. Stéphane Dion, a Quebec MP and former leader of the Liberal Party, said it would lead to unending and fruitless debates that would split Quebec’s universities and wider society.
However, academics and students at universities have not hesitated to register their dislike of the charter.
The opposition is perhaps most notable at McGill University in Montreal. Its new principal and vice-chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, who started in the role this month, said that preventing staff from wearing visible religious symbols “runs contrary to our principles”, the Montreal Gazette reported.
“The wearing of such symbols in no way interferes with the religious and political neutrality of McGill as an institution,” she added.
Ian Henderson, associate professor of the New Testament in McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, said he had already noticed a number of students suddenly wearing Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David.
“Nothing in my religion requires me to wear a cross,” he said. “But when a government says that if you wear one of those things we think we can spot your identity (and that you are not being religiously neutral), then they have pressed a button that says: ‘I will not hide my commitment to Jesus Christ and as a Christian.’ ”
He added that he would also stand alongside Jewish and Muslim friends who wanted to show their devotion openly.
Daniel Weinstock, a professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law, served on Quebec’s 2008 Reasonable Accommodation Commission, which investigated cultural and ethnic diversity in the province. He said it was “striking” that polls indicated that support for the charter proposal “is highest where there is actually the least ethno-cultural or religious diversity”.
“People who live in a large, very mixed urban centre like Montreal, whether they trace their origins in Quebec back hundreds of years or not, have learned to find creative and neighbourly ways to deal with integration issues.
“They therefore see this charter as pointless – and perhaps also as insulting,” he said.
Meanwhile, Melissa Kate Wheeler, president of the students’ union at Concordia University in Montreal, said that dozens of students had been coming forward to voice their concerns. “These students whose identity includes an outward expression of their religious faith are worried about their future in Quebec and, especially, career prospects in the Quebec Civil Service,” she said.
Such concerns may not have been allayed by Mr Drainville, whose response to a question of whether a person might be sacked for wearing a headscarf, told the 10 September news briefing: “Let’s not talk about that now. We want to talk about values.”