MONTREAL — Jewish groups have deplored Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois’ proposal to prohibit public employees from wearing overtly religious symbols on the job, but are cautious in commenting on how the PQ’s planned “charter of secularism” would directly affect Jews.
Marois pledged that if the PQ is elected Sept. 4 her government will move quickly to table legislation creating the charter, which she had indicated would override constitutional guarantees, if necessary. The charter would make state neutrality paramount.
Marois said last week that “ostentatious” religious symbols should have no place in state institutions, starting with those where government services are provided.
Headgear such as hijabs and turbans would fall into that category, while party officials have been less clear on kippot.
Marois thinks that small crosses and perhaps stars, worn “discreetly”, would be permissible. She feels the crucifix is a cultural, not only religious, symbol because of Quebec’s Roman Catholic heritage.
(A crucifix hangs over the speaker’s seat in the National Assembly, and legislators unanimously voted to retain it during the term of the Liberal Charest government.)
The PQ has not made it clear whether this ban would extend to para-public employees in such sectors as health care and education.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, speaking on behalf of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the organization’s comments would be limited until the PQ has fully clarified its intentions.
“The Jewish community of Quebec has always vigorously and passionately defended individual rights and freedoms,” said Rabbi Poupko, who called on “politicians of all parties to take very seriously their obligation to appeal to the better nature of the electorate and be voices for unity, rather than divisiveness.”
If the PQ’s ultimate goal is to instil an adherence to Quebec values among immigrants, Rabbi Poupko said that would be better achieved through education, rather than restrictions on dress.
The government should make clear to newcomers that values such as tolerance of differences and respect for human rights are the reason Quebec is the prosperous and secure place that it is and why people want to live here, he said.
Rabbi Poupko does not believe the great majority of Quebecers are xenophobic, and he hopes its leaders, unlike in the “reasonable accommodation” debate a few years ago, do not remain silent in the face of any such expression.
Moïse Moghrabi, Quebec chair of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights, described the proposed secularism charter as “a flawed attempt to fit Quebec’s pluralistic and diverse society into the PQ’s own restrictive and exclusionary model for integration.
“It does not represent reasonable restriction of a particular fundamental right such as might be called for by security, identification or communication requirements.”
He hopes all Quebecers will voice their disapproval to the PQ of this threat to “principles of inclusion, respect for all citizens and protection of minorities.”
The sole Jewish member of the National Assembly, Liberal Lawrence Bergman of D’Arcy McGee, termed the PQ proposal “odious and shameful” and, if implemented, would “make our society all the poorer.”
He said he’s surprised Marois would come up with such an idea when only this spring she supported Bergman’s motion commemorating the 180th anniversary of the groundbreaking political emancipation of Jews through an act of Quebec’s legislature.
“Obviously, she wasn’t paying too much attention to the message of that motion,” he said.
He doesn’t believe the proposed charter is comparable to Bill 94, which was introduced by the Charest government two years ago. That legislation would have banned both public employees and those seeking public services from wearing full face coverings.
Bergman said the thrust of that bill was that faces should be shown for purposes of “identification and security.”
“The Liberal Party is committed to an open secularism… Civil servants can wear any religious symbol or headgear.”
Bill 94 stalled after a public commission held hearings on it.
Someone keenly watching this latest chapter in Quebec’s “identity” question is lawyer Adam Atlas. He was chair of Quebec Jewish Congress at the height of the debate on the place of religion in the public sphere.
Atlas, who no longer has any official position in the community, is disheartened to see Quebec once again being “dragged backward by politicians pandering for votes” by playing on francophone Quebecers’ insecurity.
This time, he finds it especially troubling because Marois is openly making a distinction between a Christian tradition and everyone else. Atlas said this establishes “two classes of citizens, which inevitably will create tensions between groups and we already have enough of that.”
Prohibiting public employees from wearing religious clothing or symbols is “an affront to our fundamental freedoms.
“It’s absurd, almost comical. Such wear does not disturb the peace or interfere with the normal operation of the state… Who really is offended if the employee serving me is wearing a turban? Who is the government to tell me I must be offended?”