MONTREAL — Jewish groups have reiterated their opposition to the proposed charter of Quebec values unveiled by the minority Parti Québécois government on Sept. 10, three weeks after details were apparently leaked to the media.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith Canada both believe the prohibition on religious headwear and other “conspicuous” symbols for public-sector employees is contrary to the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
“It is unacceptable and will only serve to inflame civil discourse,” CIJA said in a strongly worded statement.
The proposed legislation is “discriminatory, arbitrary, provocative and will sow the seeds of division that the government claims it wishes to avoid.”
It continued: “The government is rehashing old, out-of-context stories in order to generate support for the unwarranted attack on the basic rights and freedoms of Quebecers, all to find a solution to the so-called ‘reasonable accommodation crisis’, which was largely recognized as fictitious.”
The charter’s stated aims are to reinforce state neutrality and the secular character of public institutions, as well as underline the equality of men and women.
CIJA counters that the separation of church and state is well entrenched and there’s no need for new laws.
“The prohibition on wearing religious symbols in the public and para-public service is not justified and would exclude a large number of Quebecers. The role of the state should be to bring people together, not to divide them,” it says.
B’nai Brith believes the proposed charter is unconstitutional because it violates religious expression guarantees. It said it is prepared to intervene if the federal government mounts a court challenge.
“Instead of promoting equality and justice and seeking a better society for all, the proposed charter of values discriminates against persons of faith and transforms them into second-class citizens,” said lawyer Allan Adel, national chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.
“This is one of the most unconstitutional moves a government can make. The very notion that the government will be in the business of deciding what constitutes a ‘large and conspicuous’ religious item is simply ludicrous.”
The immediate reaction from other segments of the Jewish community was also condemnatory.
Business consultant Arthur Hiess, who has a long track record in defending minority rights, said the proposed charter “harks back to the restrictions imposed on Jews” by authoritarian regimes historically.
Jews have lived in Quebec since the 1700s and their values are part and parcel of the values of this province, he said.
The discussion of such a ban is having a negative impact on Quebec’s economy, he said, scaring away foreign investment, which is already comparatively low. He predicts highly mobile doctors and other professionals directly affected would leave the province.
“Quebec has become the laughingstock of North America,” Hiess said.
He is astonished that Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, who had a long and respected career as a Radio-Canada journalist, could be the prime mover behind the charter.
“He is appealing to the worst instincts of people, to the lowest common denominator,” Hiess said, by fanning fear of religious minorities, especially among those living outside Montreal, where Muslims, Jews and Sikhs are few. To Hiess, this is reminiscent of the dark days of the Duplessis era from the 1930s- to the 1950s.
“Quebec has lost its way,” he said. “On the one hand, it is welcoming people here and asking them to integrate, and, on the other, it is isolating them for political gain.”
Once a precedent is set permitting the state to decide what its employees can wear, Hiess wonders what further measures might be taken to enforce secularism.
Alex Werzberger, head of the Coalition of Chassidic Communities of Outremont, agrees that, if the charter is adopted, it could open the way to further restrictions. “This is going to touch each and every one of us in ways we cannot even think of,” he said.
He worries, for example, that kosher meals might not be available in hospitals, or that kosher food might even be allowed to be brought in from the outside.
He is concerned that too much discretion will be in the hands of civil servants to decide the line between the religious and the secular.
“Pierre Trudeau said the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Well, it has no business meddling in the soul or consciences of the nation either… Who knows how far this could go?”
Whether or not the charter is passed, Werzberger said the message the government is sending is that, “We do not want any religious people showing their religion in public in Quebec.”
While a case may be made that the charter is unconstitutional, Werzberger said court challenges are expensive, ultimately, for all taxpayers.
“Why isn’t the government taking the $2 million it’s going to spend on promoting the charter and using it instead to educate people about minorities?” Werzberger asks.
“This is nothing but an election ploy. Unfortunately, it may work,” he said. “We look like a bunch of rednecks to the world.”
Mayors Anthony Housefather of Côte St. Luc, the city with the largest Jewish population in Quebec, and William Steinberg of Hampstead, which has the highest percentage of Jewish residents, are among the mayors of 15 de-merged municipalities on the island of Montreal that on Sept. 11 adopted a resolution opposing the charter.
“We will oppose the adoption of the charter through all political means and, in the event it is adopted, we would certainly apply for the exemption [foreseen in the proposed law],” Housefather said.
“The charter is an attempt by the PQ government to divert attention from their failure to hand the urgent issues of the day – the economy, infrastructure, education, health, pension plans – and to sow division,” he said.
“In the same way the City of Côte St. Luc led the charge against Bill 14 [the PQ’s proposed legislation to make French language laws stricter], we will do the same against another divisive and hurtful PQ proposal.”
The 15 mayors say the plan “reveals a conscious denial of the multicultural reality of Montreal and will only lead to division and exclusion.”
In unveiling the charter, Drainville said the goal is to “set clear rules for everyone.”
“Since 2006, a number of high-profile religious accommodation cases have given rise to a profound discomfort in Quebec. To maintain social peace and promote harmony, we must prevent tensions from growing… We will be best served by a state that treats everyone the same.”
Among the proscribed head wear are kippot. However, a small ring in the form of a Star of David would, according to the government’s example, be allowed.
The ban on “overt and conspicuous” religious attire would apply to all personnel of ministries and government organizations; judges, police officers, prosecutors and correctional agents; staff of the Centres de la petite enfance (CPEs) and subsidized private daycares, public school boards, cegep and university, public health care and social services, and municipal employees.
Cegeps, universities, health and social service institutions, and municipalities can opt out of the charter for a period of five years, which is renewable.
The five-pronged plan also calls for amending the Quebec rights charter to include rules on handling religious accommodation requests, forbidding public employees from promoting their religious beliefs on the job, requiring that faces be uncovered to receive government services, and having all ministries and governmental organizations implement a policy on neutrality and the management of religious accommodation.
Details on the proposed charter are available at the bilingual website www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca. The public is invited to submit its comments to Drainville through the site.