MONTREAL — The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is confident that a sweeping prohibition on religious attire for public and para-public sector employees, as described in an apparent government leak last week to certain media outlets, will not pass.
Executive member Rabbi Reuben Poupko, speaking on behalf of the organization, said CIJA has received indications from the Liberal and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) opposition that they won’t support the minority Parti Québécois (PQ) government’s planned charter on Quebec values – if the parameters contained in the Aug. 20 report in the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec, based on “reliable sources,” are true.
“Our understanding is that the Liberals and CAQ would not support anything near to what is being proposed,” he said.
Nevertheless, CIJA is deeply disturbed that the government is even considering a ban on religious headwear and jewelry for those who work in the provincial sector, including civil servants, judges, police, doctors, teachers and daycare workers.
Such “conspicuous” wear as the Jewish kippah, Muslim hijab and Sikh turban, as well as the Christian cross, are specified as coming under the prohibition, according to the report.
Culturally specific health-care institutions, such as the Jewish General Hospital, could apply for an exemption, renewable every five years, and private schools would not be subject to the ban, also according to the report.
Another detail is that girls and women would have to remove face-coverings in order to attend public schools or receive health care.
On Aug. 22, Premier Pauline Marois and Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, the minister in charge of the file, confirmed that a discussion paper will soon be put forward on a proposed charter, in preparation for the tabling of a bill.
The two other major parties have been muted in their response. Liberal leader Philippe Couillard said his party won’t support any law that divides Quebecers, while CAQ leader François Legault has reserved any direct comment until the government states its intentions.
Liberal Lawrence Bergman, the sole Jewish member of the National Assembly, told The CJN: “This is a big smokescreen for the government’s failure to manage the economy, which should be its priority but obviously is not.
“Something as important as values should not be leaked as a trail balloon. It’s irresponsible to act in this manner.”
Bergman is waiting until the government issues a text before commenting more specifically. “In the meantime, I would say any provision that divides Quebecers or isolates people would certainly be unacceptable.”
Last spring, Drainville said the government would introduce legislation for a values charter this fall and that he hoped it would engender a thoughtful public debate on the accommodation of religious minorities. He has maintained that this issue has never been resolved, despite a government commission that made its final report in 2008.
A key plank in the PQ’s election platform in the campaign leading up to last September’s election, the charter would affirm the neutrality of the state, the secular character of the public institutions, and the equality of men and women.
Rabbi Poupko said the government is trying to come up with a “nonsensical solution to a non-existent problem.
“The one question the PQ cannot coherently answer is: what problem is it trying to solve? There is no evidence that people are confused by civil servants’ personal religiosity. What matters is their attitude and behaviour toward the public, that they treat everyone the same,” he said.
“The government seems to believe that Quebecers are not intelligent enough to distinguish between an employee’s role and their private beliefs. I don’t think that’s true.”
If there is intolerance because of visible signs of minority religions in Quebec, said Rabbi Poupko, the government should be getting at the root of the problem by advocating tolerance of diversity.
“If there are those who want Quebec to look like it did in 1955, who are xenophobic, then the government should not be acquiescing to these nativist instincts,” he said.
A poll commissioned by the government in March indicated a majority of Quebecers do not want public workers wearing religious symbols.
Rabbi Poupko said CIJA is “heartened that this trial balloon has been greeted with widespread scorn and derision” within the media, as well as by constitutional experts and Charles Taylor, co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation, whose recommendations did not go anywhere near as far as what seems will be proposed by the government.
On Aug. 19, a delegation of CIJA and Federation CJA leaders met with Drainville. CIJA Quebec chair Eric Maldoff told the minister, “While the Jewish community supports the principle of state neutrality in religious matters, banning religious symbols from the public and parapublic sectors goes too far.”
Victor Goldbloom, a former Quebec cabinet minister, said, “Wearing a kippah or a Star of David is a matter of personal choice and does not compromise one’s impartiality.”
B’nai Brith Canada leaders also met Drainville last week and voiced their concern about what would appear to be a “total disregard for religious minorities.”
“Quebec is a society rich with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and implementing changes such as those revealed in the leaks discriminates against religious minorities, revealing a blatant disregard for the government’s stated goal of integration,” said Allan Adel, national chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, as well as for freedoms guaranteed by the federal and Quebec charters, and international law.
Lionel Perez, interim mayor of the Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough, said he would present a motion to Montreal city council on Aug. 26 recognizing the city’s cultural diversity.
Perez, an Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, wants Montreal to urge the PQ government to define secularism in an “inclusive and open” manner.
“We need a secularism that reflects Quebec’s new pluralistic demographics… This is a reality we can’t ignore.”
In an Aug. 22 op-ed article in Le Devoir, Perez criticized any restrictions on religious wear as “rigid and selective.”
He wrote that no one should be forced to choose between being elected to office and wearing a religious symbol while fulfilling that role. (The reported details do not refer to politicians.)
While not opposed to the adoption of a secularism charter, Perez believes that the “goal of an inclusive secularism is aiming to build a genuinely plural public space, to build a society that avoids marginalizing or trapping our citizens in a single mold, depriving them of the right to their moral or religious choice.”
Other politicians have weighed in on the controversy.
Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, the federal Liberal human rights critic, said the charter of values reportedly being contemplated would “make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades,” he said citing former PQ premiers René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, among others.
“Banning manifestations of religious belief – both for those who work in public institutions and for those served by them – would constitute a radical break, not only with our provincial and federal charters of rights and with international human rights law, but with Quebec values themselves, as articulated by icons of Quebec’s nationalist movement.”
Put succinctly, Cotler believes public employees should be “religiously neutral, not religiously neutered.” Beyond effectively preventing them from holding certain jobs, religious Quebecers would be forced “into the closet,” he said, “sending the message that religious adherence is something to be ashamed of.”
If, as proponents claim, there is widespread support for such measures, Cotler noted that “in free societies, minority rights are not subject to majority rule” and pluralism is the best way of handling the “inherent complications” of diversity.
Physician Seymour Mishkin, an observant Jew who works at the Royal Victoria Hospital, said he removes his kippah while seeing patients. However, he feels that “this issue is an unfortunate diversion from the real issues that face Quebec at this time.”