Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does Quebec need a ‘charter of secularism’?


The latest incident of official harassment of ethnic minorities in Quebec — the so-called “turban” ban[1] issued by the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) — has now passed into history, but it is worth revisiting the lessons as well as examining some of the reactions on the left.

Predictably, the ban was yet another occasion for denunciation of Quebec nationalists in the Canadian (and some international) media. It must be said that the QSF and its defenders starting with Quebec premier Pauline Marois played right into the hands of these enemies of Quebec self-determination and independence.

Briefly, in early June the QSF issued a ban on the wearing of “turbans” by Sikh youths under the Federation’s jurisdiction, claiming it would make the playing field “unsafe” for all concerned. However, it cited no evidence in support of this assertion, and in fact there is none, anywhere. The Quebec ban was soon afterwards denounced by the Canadian Soccer Association, which then suspended its Quebec affiliate. At least 20 teams from Ontario had to cancel plans to play at a tournament in Montréal in mid-June, in accordance with CSA rules prohibiting member associations from competing with suspended teams. However, in a notable exception, an under-14 boys’ soccer team in Brossard, a Montréal suburb, wore orange head scarves to a game in protest of the QSF ban.

The Parti québécois government, in an overwrought reaction, denounced the QSF suspension as a violation of Quebec “autonomy,” as did its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois. Wiser minds attempted a compromise. For example, the federal NDP wrote the FIFA, the soccer world’s governing body, asking it to find a solution; the FIFA soon issued a statement confirming that soccer players may indeed wear turbans in official matches. The QSF then reversed its ban.

As Benoit Renaud explains in the article below, the PQ government was quick to defend the Quebec ban on the “turban” because it is seeking increasingly to shore up its sagging popular support by stoking xenophobic fears of threats to “Quebec identity” supposedly posed by minority religions and cultures, especially those of recent immigrants to Quebec. These divisive tactics now take the form of promoting a Quebec “identity” and “values” that would exclude public display of “otherness” — for example, by banning the wearing of “ostentatious” signs of religious belief like the Muslim headscarf or the Sikh turban or ceremonial sword, the kirpan.

An initial step was taken by the previous Liberal government headed by Jean Charest when it tabled Bill 94, which would deny access to public services for women wearing the Muslim niqab or other coverings that conceal much or all of their face. The bill failed to come to a vote before the government was defeated in the September 2012 election.

During the recent election the PQ promised a Charte québécoise de la laïcité, or charter of secularism, among various measures “to affirm our identity and our values,” including “equality between women and men and secularism of public institutions.” Now the PQ government has renamed its project a Charter of Values, although it has not yet revealed its content.

The left party Québec solidaire did not support a charter of secularism in its election platform, nor is there any such proposal in its overall program. When it last debated the question, at its November 2009 program convention, the delegates adopted what they termed a “model of secularism,” also referred to as “open secularism,” that distinguished between the need for state neutrality toward religious belief or lack of belief and the freedom of individuals “to express their own convictions in a context that favours exchange and dialogue.”[2] And in a 2010 article published in the Montréal daily Le Devoir, the then general secretary of Québec solidaire, Benoit Renaud, argued strongly against a “charter of secularism,”[3] noting how it would be used against Muslims and other religious and cultural minorities.

However, QS parliamentary spokesperson Françoise David, the MNA for Gouin riding, in a June 11 media briefing criticizing the turban ban, called on the PQ to “get back to essentials” and went on to say:

“We have to discuss secularism in Quebec… Do we want a charte de laïcité? We say yes, but we go further: to include in the [Quebec] Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms some articles stating clearly that secularism is a Quebec value….”

David explained that she had supported two motions in the National Assembly. “One by the Liberals, urging the Quebec [soccer] federation and the Canadian federation to dialogue to settle the issue,” and another “by the PQ government denouncing the decision of the Canadian [soccer] federation which basically does not recognize any autonomy to the Quebec federation.”

Do these positions signify a retreat from the programmatic clarity of the QS positions adopted in 2009? Françoise David and QS have certainly been the target of unrelenting and vicious personal attacks from narrow nationalists in the past when she has come out strongly in support of “open secularism” and “reasonable accommodation” of individuals’ right to the public expression of cultural and religious practices. Some of the most egregious attacks are featured regularly in the web and print newspaper L’aut’journal, the organ of “left” péquistes, which has long argued in favour of a Charte de la laïcité in articles redolent of Islamophobia.

There have been other indications of slippages on these issues by the QS leadership. For example, the QS brief on Bill 94 gave it critical support while objecting to deprivation of services to women wearing the niqab or voile intégral. When some Sikhs were prohibited entry to the National Assembly to present their brief on Bill 94, on the spurious ground that their ceremonial kirpan was a “weapon,”[4] QS MNA Amir Khadir voted to support a PQ emergency motion to support the ban, making the Assembly’s vote unanimous – and letting slip an excellent opportunity for the QS spokeperson to publicly clarify the party’s position on reasonable accommodation, open secularism, and freedom of personal religious belief.

In the article below, Benoit Renaud argues strongly in opposition to focusing the debate on these issues around a “charter of secularism.” I am less sanguine than he is, however, that a broader debate on “values,” as now proposed by the PQ government, can be used effectively to promote the kind of open secularism favoured by Québec solidaire. As he notes, the PQ shift from “laïcité” to “values” in their proposed charter may be prompted by fears that an exclusive focus on “secularism” as defined restrictively by the PQ will be subject to court challenges. I would add that the PQ charter will likely include its narrow concept of “laïcité” as a “Quebec value,” possibly linked with a “secular” reading of “feminism” as a value that would impose public dress codes on religious minorities and trump reasonable accommodation of individual religious and cultural beliefs in the public sphere.

In fact, while the “turban” ban was clearly a “bad decision” based on ignorance, prejudice or xenophobia, as Benoit says, the fact is that most of the incidents that have aroused hostile media comment in recent years in Quebec have involved attempts at reasonable accommodation. The report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences listed dozens of such incidents, described them in detail, and concluded that in almost every case they were reasonable attempts to accommodate individuals with minority religious beliefs in ways that do not conflict with collective values already represented, for example, in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights.

The whole purpose of reasonable accommodation is to find ways to adjust institutional practices so as not to offend the religious and/or cultural beliefs of minorities, with the ultimate goal of helping the latter to be part of, or integrate into, civil society, the “Quebec nation” as broadly defined (territorially, juridically). The purpose of a “charter of values” (or of laïcité, for that matter) is to set limits on accommodation; it flies in the face of interculturalism as generally understood in Quebec.

However, as the “turban” ban shows, the dynamic of these debates goes beyond the issue of reasonable accommodation within public institutions and inevitably encompasses private activities like the imposition of a dress code on a kids’ soccer team. Thus I see little likelihood that a debat on “values” in this charged atmosphere in Quebec will in fact result (as Benoit Renaud hopes) in a “simple policy based on existing rights.” After all, if it did, that would suggest that there was no need for the debate in the first place!

A Charter of Values, unlike a Charter of Human Rights, which is aimed at the suppression of concrete manifestations of discrimination and oppression, has the opposite effect: it must necessarily be vague enough to cover all kinds of “values” and standards of conduct. And as we know, in the last analysis the dominant ideas in any class society are those of the hegemonic ruling class, not our class. Not to mention how even a value as basic as “the right to life” has been interpreted by the Catholic Church.

At the conclusion of this article, I have linked to other articles by Benoit Renaud addressed to these issues, including several that correctly place the question in the larger context of the Quebec national question and how these issues reflect the problem of the cultural insecurity of Québécois as a minority in a state that refuses to acknowledge their national character – which of course then points to the need to develop a strategy for independence, the creation of a state that can adequately defend French as the public language and develop an intercultural, open secular approach to immigration, education, human rights, etc. Which will not be done by centering the debate on abstract values.

The article was first published by Benoit on June 13, 2013, on Le blogueur solidaire. It has been slightly revised by him for my English translation, which was first published on The numbered notes (5 to 10) are by him.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

The Marois government, identity secularism and ‘Quebec values’

By Benoit Renaud

Bernard Drainville, the minister of Democratic Institutions in the Parti québécois government, announced May 22 that the Charte de la laïcité, or Charter of Secularism, promised by his party in last year’s general election, would become a Charte des valeurs québécoises, or Charter of Quebec values, and be tabled as a government bill this fall. What does this shift in the government’s rhetoric mean, and how should the left react?

This new maneuver, aimed at expanding the identity front in the hope of gaining (electoral) ground, is complex and risky. We should take advantage of it to make some headway in favour of pluralism and human rights, and put an end once and for all to the proposed Charte de la laïcité, a project that is at best unnecessary and potentially a threat to our freedoms; and we should reaffirm as “Quebec values” a respect for difference, intercultural convergence, and solidarity in opposition to discrimination and oppression.

As the report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission clearly demonstrated, there is no crisis in Quebec in the relations between different communities of belief, except in the heads of the xenophobes, the speeches of the right-wing demagogues who fuel this xenophobia in order to make political capital, and the dishonest coverage of some sensationalistic media. When incidents are blown up in the media, it is because some people make bad decisions based on ignorance, prejudice, xenophobia or by overlooking certain rights. We saw this recently in the decision of the Quebec Soccer Federation to exclude young Sikhs wearing turbans. There was no problem until a few individuals decided to create one out of nothing.

The solution to these minor problems is not to create a new law with an assimilationist and anti-religious definition of secularism (contrary to the spirit and the history of this idea, which originated on the left) and over and above the rights of individuals and minorities. Rather, the task is to commit ourselves to firm defense of the rights of religious minorities in the face of discrimination and exclusion, and in a spirit of integration. And to improve the training of those administering public services in order to prevent the kinds of incidents that our sensationalistic media and national demagogues enjoy so much. A policy on secularism and accommodation, under the existing laws, notably the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would be entirely sufficient.

Is secularism an overriding value?

What does the PQ mean by “Quebec values”? Are these values invented in Quebec before being disseminated elsewhere? Are they values found only in Quebec? Are they values that have always been shared by the people of Quebec, from New France to our day? We need to be clear. The debate has to address the values that Quebec decides to adopt collectively and democratically as a society, for now and for the future.

What are these values? Can we identify some that are more fundamental and more essential than others? To what extent can we accept that not everyone in Quebec shares the same values?

This could be an interesting debate, although hard to translate into laws and regulations. But in fact the government’s purpose is not to contribute to the debate but rather to develop a new strategy to counter the decline in their popular support, a logical consequence of their neoliberal governance. Like other Western governments on the ropes in the recent past (for example, Sarkozy’s in France), the Marois regime hopes to rally support around xenophobic panic disguised as a fight for secularism and/or national identity.

This new positioning is both a retreat and an offensive. A retreat, in that it dilutes the issue of secularism as understood by the ethnic nationalists and the anticlerical militants (two distinct groups that sometimes overlap). Their demand for a charter of secularism seeks to set aside the policy of intercultural integration adopted by Quebec in the years when Gérald Godin was in the government[5] and replacing it with a new policy of assimilation asking minorities to make themselves invisible. This assimilative policy logically leads to justifying discrimination and marginalization for persons who refuse to dissolve into the model determined by the majority.

The strategic retreat toward “values” in general is both a concession to those who reject secularism out of attachment for Quebec’s Catholic heritage (like the mayor of Saguenay) and a logical consequence of the identitarian slippage in the very concept of secularism, which is increasingly instrumentalized for the purpose of marginalizing minorities. This is contrary to the meaning of secularism in its historic sense.[6]

But raising the question of “Quebec values” in general opens the door to recognition of more important values than secularism. Secularism should be understood as a means of achieving equality, freedom and solidarity: equality among the members of society independently of their spiritual and philosophical beliefs; freedom for everyone to believe or not to believe, and to build their own vision of the world; and solidarity with minorities in the realms of philosophy (e.g. atheists) or religion (Jews, Muslims, etc.) in the face of persecution or mere contempt on the part of the majority. Thus, if we were to re-examine the secular project in light of more fundamental values, we could fight its identitarian slippage and reinforce an intercultural and evolutive vision of the Quebec nation..

The PQ leaders are promoting a charter of values as a means of shoring up their nationalist credentials, which have been undermined by their inability to revive the struggle for Quebec sovereignty and their servility to the petroleum and mining multinationals, and more generally to the interests of transnational capital as manifested in their support to the Canadian free trade deal now being negotiated with Europe. Since the fight against the powerful is no longer on their agenda, why not embark on an operation that will further oppress people who are already marginalized? They didn’t hesitate to do that to the social assistance recipients, so why not go after the “ethnics” as well?

One of the problems with this approach is that its premise — that immigrants, particularly those of the Muslim religion, have values that differ appreciably from those of the French-Canadian majority — is an outright myth.[7] In fact, the values professed by the adherents of various minority religions are surprisingly similar to those of the average Catholic. Not to mention the people who come to Quebec precisely in order to escape Conservative and authoritarian regimes, or the members of minority groups that have long been established in our communities. Mixing the issue of religious affiliation and secularism with the issue of values is therefore at best breaking down an open door and at worst an operation that will fuel prejudice against minorities.

Prohibiting religious signs is not secularism

I know from my experience in Québec solidaire as well as elsewhere that the heart of the debate, its most important practical application, will once again concern the wearing of signs of religious (or cultural) adherence by workers in the public services. And that’s just for starters…

Let’s say, first, that there is no legal tradition that protects us from knowing another’s religion. That’s an invention of French anticlerical and/or Islamophobic philosophers.[8] Simply being informed of another person’s religion is in no way an infringement of my own freedom to believe or not to believe, or an attack against the secular nature of public institutions. And the idea that we can only know the religion of others if they are wearing some visible indication of it makes no sense.

If we recognized this right, how far would we have to go to enforce it? To get an idea, we need only think of the recent French moves to ban the headscarf for mothers accompanying kids on school outings, or for women working in the private sector, etc.

What if a man of Jamaican origin has dreadlocks, like Bob Marley? I might conclude that he adheres to the Rasta religion. So if he applied for a job as a teacher, I could require that he cut his hair. By doing so, I would prevent him from displaying his identification with his slave and African ancestors and their struggles. Would that decision be progressive?

Also, our thinking should be based on an analysis of the context. There is no systemic discrimination against atheists or Christians in our society. But there is indeed against the Arabs, the Muslims, the Africans, etc.[9] Banning personal religious insignia in general may seem fair at first, but in reality it means targeting minority religions, and the effect is to fuel prejudice.

Furthermore, a law banning the wearing of religious signs would probably be overthrown by the courts on the basis of the Quebec or Canadian charters of human rights. And some writers who favour such a ban recognize the problem. That’s where the bad idea of a Charte de la laïcité comes from. It’s a way to put so-called secular principles (actually anti-religious principles, which is quite different) above human rights in order to immunize them from potential court decisions. The last thing to do in this situation would be to pressure the PQ to return the discussion toward a Charte de la laïcité. On the contrary, we should take advantage of the semantic fuzziness introduced by the invocation of “values” to reverse this trend and argue for a simple policy based on existing rights.

If the PQ wants to return to this question this fall, it will be in the context of its inability to renew the strategy of the independentist movement and the decline in support for the government because of its neoliberal policies. What, then, is the political content of their project concerning “Quebec values”? It is an identitarian retreat to the NOUS of a Jacques Parizeau, the NOUS of the “secularized,”[10] the NOUS who don’t wear bizarre or sexist clothing, etc. aimed at THEM and their customs, their habits, their beliefs. If Québec solidaire (and the left in general) do not come out in strong opposition to this populist right-wing slippage worthy of a Mario Dumont, we will collectively be accomplices of a tendency to caricature minorities that will be used to justify any and all discrimination. This would be unworthy of an internationalist left opposed to all forms of oppression.

Other articles by Benoit Renaud (in English) on these issues may be found at Life on the Left and Socialist Voice. Just type his name in the respective Search spaces, then press Enter.

[1] As Gurcharan Singh, president of the Federation of Sikh Societies of Canada, noted in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen, published June 11, the clothing in question is a patka: “a turban is generally six to eight metres; a patka is less than one square metre.” It is “part of the uniform of every male Sikh athlete universally.”

[2] And they opposed demands frequently advanced in Quebec nationalist circles for a ban on the wearing of religious signs by “state agents” (employees and officials) — while providing some loopholes for potential exceptions: “provided they are not used as instruments of proselytism” and do not interfere with their duty of discretion or “impede the performance of the duties or contravene safety standards.” (For a detailed account see my article “Quebec left debates independence strategy.”)

[3] For an English translation of extensive excerpts from Renaud’s article, see “Quebec needs workers’ unity, not a ‘charter of secularism’ – Québec solidaire.”

[4] The courts had already held that the kirpan is not a “weapon,” in a case that vividly demonstrated some of the ways in which accommodation of religious minorities could actually aid the national cause in Quebec. See my article, “The Kirpan Ruling: A Victory for Public School Integration.”

[5] Godin was Minister of Cultural Communities and Immigration in the early 1980s.

[6] In France, in a period when Europe was still experiencing democratic revolutions, the goal was to defend equal rights for all citizens, including Protestants, Jews or agnostics, in the face of domination by the Catholic Church of the majority.

[7] Paul Eid, “La ferveur religieuse et les demandes d’accommodement religieux, une comparaison intergroupe,” in Eid, Bosset, Milot & Legro (ed.), Appartenances religieuses, Appartenance citoyenne, un équilibre en tension (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009).

[8] I am thinking here of Catherine Kintzler and Henri Pena-Ruiz, in particular.


[10] An individual cannot personify laïcité; it is a neutral terrain, not a specific vision of the world. Laïcisation is an evolution of institutions, secularization affects civil society.

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