Charter of Values and Québec criticism

Editor's note: this post was submitted by Jared Milne.

The debate over Québec's secular Charter of Values has been a heated one. The proposed Charter would restrict public servants from wearing conspicuous religious items such as burqas and niqabs, which many critics say infringes on the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in Québec. Quebecers who support the Charter, in turn, have been accused of bigotry, especially by other Canadians, claiming that this is just another example of the racism that is supposedly so prevalent in that province, and the supposed ethnic nationalism of the Parti Québécois.

As an Anglophone living in Alberta, I have to admit that some of these critics have left me scratching my head. I'm no fan of the Charter of Values, and I think that it would be a bad idea if implemented. What surprises and bothers me, however, is the fact that there's been so much criticism directed at Québec from critics on all parts of the spectrum, while criticism of similar attitudes in other parts of Canada and the world usually only comes from the political left, when it even appears at all.

Other parts of Canada haven't always been welcoming to religious minorities who wear conspicuous religious items. Back in the 1980s, a young Sikh man had to get the RCMP to make an exception to its uniform code so that he could wear a turban while serving as a police officer, against the hostility of many Canadians who said that he should wear the same traditional uniform as everybody else. In the 1990s in Peel Ontario, a Sikh student had to fight for his right to wear his kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, in an Ontario school. In 2008, a Sikh man in Calgary, Alberta, was barred from entering a courthouse because of his kirpan. The comments on the news article, which describe how Alberta has decided to allow Sikhs to wear their kirpans in courthouses, show how much many readers disagreed with the decision.

Prominent Canadian conservatives are expressing views similar to the ones behind the Charter of Values. In 2011, Ezra Levant fiercely criticized the Toronto police service for allowing female officers to wear hijabs and other symbols while working for the secular police force. In 2012, federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spearheaded an initiative to bar women from wearing niqab facial veils at Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

A surprising number of Canadians in general either support the Charter of Values, or something similar to it. National Post writer Paul Russell was surprised by the number of readers who wrote in expressing support for the Charter, or even criticizing it for not banning facial coverings. A Global News poll revealed that while many Canadians outside Québec did not like the Charter of Values, they did support bans on burqa veils and kirpans.

Such attitudes exist in other English-speaking countries, too. In 2013, an Irish court ruled that Sikhs could not wear their turbans while working for the country's police force. In 2010, one of Great Britain's first Sikh judges criticized schools and other public places for barring entry to Sikh people wearing kirpans. Multiculturalism and immigration have been controversial in Britain in general. Araminta Wordsworth wrote that conservative politicians are scoring political points by attacking immigration, even as some Britons feel their 'Britishness' is being overwhelmed by immigrants who won't integrate. Other critics write that Britain's common values are being undermined by immigrants who refuse to integrate and stick to values that the critics say force women into secondary roles in society.

And just for the record, support for the Charter is not unanimous in Québec, even among the separatist movement. Prominent separatists such as Lucien and Gérard Bouchard, Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry have all called for the Charter's bans on religious garb to only be extended to people with coercive state powers, such as judges, police officers and prosecutors, which is exactly what commentators like Levant were calling for. Other separatists, such as Jean Dorion, head of an organization that calls for an inclusive Québec separatism, has spoken about how the Charter goes against Québec history [Google translation], and the need to welcome as many Quebecers as possible for independence to be viable.

Anybody who thinks that the attitudes behind the Charter of Values are restricted to Québec is kidding themselves. Certainly there are critics who will oppose the Québec Charter and also decry similar attitudes and actions in other parts of Canada and the world. My problem isn't with them, but with those critics who, for some strange reason, insist on singling out Québec and Quebecers as somehow being more racist than other Canadians for supporting the Charter.

Why are those Quebecers who support the Charter somehow more racist than people in other parts of Canada and the world, when similar attitudes exist not just in other Canadian provinces, but foreign countries like Great Britain and Ireland? Why is it somehow ethnic nationalism when francophone Quebecers want to impose some restrictions on religious garb, but not the likes of Ezra Levant and Jason Kenney when they decry police officers wearing veils and turbans, or ban the wearing of facial coverings in court proceedings or citizenship ceremonies?

Why is it alright for Anglophones to express concern when immigrants who refuse to integrate and adopt local values, while it's supposedly bigotry when Francophones do the exact same thing?

I honestly don't get it, I really don't.