Quebec’s values charter would institutionalize prejudice

September 23, 2013

State neutrality is a classic concept embraced by secular and liberal states to address religious and cultural differences.

The Parti Québécois government in Quebec isn’t unique in claiming to strive for neutrality, but it is doing so with a twist that adds a certain political charge to the debate. In its promotion of the idea of a neutral Quebec, the proposed Charter of Quebec Values is being portrayed as a knight in shining armour, saving and protecting Quebec’s values and heritage under threat by the diluting dragon that is multiculturalism.

But would the charter, as being proposed, truly promote neutrality? Or would it enshrine prejudice instead?

On the one hand, Bernard Drainville, the government minister in charge of promoting the charter, says that banning “overt and conspicuous religious symbols” preserves the state’s neutrality; but practically in the same breath, he defends the crucifix and Christmas trees because these are part of Quebec’s “culture.”

You can’t have it both ways. As Richard J. Arneson, a philosopher specializing in political philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, explains in his article Liberal Neutrality on the Good: An Autopsy, policies pursued by the state should be justified independently of any appeal to the supposed superiority of any ways of life, or conception of certain “good” values over other values.

We cannot claim the superiority of certain religious symbols over others simply due to a historical presence in the society. Aiming for a lofty ideal, and then justifying policies that undermine that very ideal, is uninformed at best, and hypocritical at worst.

Mr. Drainville’s line of reasoning relies on static definitions of “our culture” versus “their culture.” Once again, the debate boils down to “us” versus “them.” The “us” are Quebecers who are deemed to be “integrated,” and therefore “true Quebecers,” because they don’t show their religious beliefs (unless it’s through those acceptable rings, necklaces and earrings, of course), and those “others” who might have been living in Quebec for years, or just recently immigrated, but whose religious beliefs may in fact require the wearing of certain visible articles of clothing.

This whole exercise, in some ways, echoes what is practised in certain Middle Eastern countries by governments who believe they have the absolute right to dictate the correct values for society and impose a dress code on their citizenry, particularly women.

What is the difference between edicts handed out by such Middle Eastern governments and the PQ government’s proposal here in North America? What this charter does, in fact, is institutionalize prejudice, a far cry from neutrality.

Further, what’s conveniently overlooked in this controversy is that we are a nation of immigrants who came to Canada with the primary goal of building better lives for ourselves and for our families — and by extension, contributing to the betterment of our communities. Note how the original inhabitants of this land, the First Nations peoples, have been ignored in the creation of this proposed charter — and are speaking out against it, as well.

In a neutral state, it’s what’s in your head that should count, not what’s on it — a principle that was captured smartly by an Ontario hospital in its recent recruitment in the McGill Daily student newspaper: an ad showing a relaxed and confident female medical professional wearing a hijab.

Shirin Edarechi is a coordinator with the Ottawa-based National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).