Minority Religious Rights in Québec

Minority Religious Rights in Québec


Howard Adelman


Minority Religious Rights in Québec

Against the backdrop of incidents of inter-cultural conflict that were examined in the Bouchard-Taylor Report (B-T) that recommended against the banning of the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols by personnel working for the state, this examination finds the effort to institute a Québec Charter of Values by the Parti Québecois to have virtually no empirical foundation, to be inconsistent with the history of Québec`s Quiet Revolution, to be contradictory in its rationale and in its theory of state neutrality, that the proposal is indeed incompatible with respect for religious minorities, to have itself stirred up a hornets nest of intolerance, to be unsupported by even most Francophone Québeckers even though the proposal was initially supported by a very large majority. In the guise of the `neutrality`of the state, it is a misguided populist effort to save the fortunes of the Parti Québecois.


I received the following response to my blog on Science, Information and Democracy

“OK, I need to blow some steam out about an unrelated issue.

I thought the piece sent by Cornelia was an excellent piece, but I was surprised about the note on Quebec at the end: “Democracy depends on the protection of minorities (in contrast to the policies of the minority government in Quebec).”

I wonder why some absolutely unrelated Quebec bashing seemed in order at this point of the text. In democratic terms, the anglo minorities in Quebec have way more rights than any franco minority in other Canadian provinces. Maybe the author had in mind the discussion over the Charter of values (about which I do have disagreements). Let me remind him that other countries, like France or Turkey, have embraced the idea that public institutions, as embodied in their employees, must keep a secular face. The reason for this secular face is to have public institutions that are more inclusive when acting with minority groups. One might disagree with this policy and argument (I do). But to call the Quebec government non-democratic because he opens the debate on the issue is unsubstantiated gratuitous Quebec Bashing. For me, it means that the person should learn about Quebec through other sources than the National Post.



Perhaps I was remiss in adding this comment quoted to adumbrate the analysis I would take on minority rights in Québec. In any case, here is the blog to offer the full argument.  For a full discussion of the French system of laicité, see my chapter entitled, “Monoculturalism versus Interculturalism in a Multicultural World,” Ch. 2, in Religion, Culture and the State: Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report, Howard Adelman and Pierre Anctil eds., University of Toronto Press, 2011. The precedent of the French government in its actions on banning the ostentatious display of religious symbols by school children offers an important backdrop to the proposed Québec Charter of Values as was the longer term policy of laicité that served as the foundation for secularism in France over the twentieth century. Further, to cap the Quiet Revolution against the Catholic Church, Québec passed legislation that required new immigrants to be assimilated into the language of the French majority. While there had been a need to protect the French language in Québec, there were few cases of intercultural conflict, but the number of reported cases increased in what was dubbed the Time of Turmoil where 40 incidents were reported in contrast to the 12 cases over the previous four years and 13 cases over the 12 years prior to that. The forty cases led to the creation of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to make recommendations on how to deal with these issues.

However, the biggest impetus was probably the initiative of the town of Hérouxville with no immigrants but the town nevertheless adopted a set of ‘core’ values, really bans on specific forms of conduct, to which immigrants had to accommodate to join Québec society, values that few Canadians would take exception to except for the context. That code forbade women from being stoned alive or burned with acid. Further, as the Globe and Mail concluded in a 20th September report following a visit to Hérouxville this month, surprisingly most residents interviewed did not appear to support the Charter of Values:

·         Marie Vaugeoi, a clerk in a busy convenience store on the way into town, the Dépanneur Vaugeois, said, “If a woman wants to wear a veil, that’s her business. People should have freedom.”

·         While Town councillor Jean-Claude Mailloux insisted that newcomers respect “our” rules, he nevertheless saw no reason to ban headscarves or turbans. “If you’re a good nurse, that’s what counts. It’s not a turban or veil that says whether you’re competent, it’s what’s underneath.”

·         A camp director, Gilles Brûlé, who receives many Muslim tourists, said, “Why do I care what they wear on their heads?…Whether it’s an army cadet with a beret, a Muslim with a veil or a cancer patient with a wig, it doesn’t matter, as long as I can see their face and talk to them….I don’t want a law that hurts some citizens…In the end, laws should be there to unite, not divide nationalities.”

Generally, the citizens of Hérouxville seemed to demonstrate the same tolerance for religious differences that Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor documented in their report.

The Findings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

In 2006, the Superior Court in Québec ruled that a Sikh student could wear a kirpan in a Québec school. In conflict with the rest of Canada, a Muslim referee insisted a female soccer player could not wear a hijab, a position publicly supported by Premier Jean Charest. Politically, in January 2007, the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) denounced the Québequois surrender to minorities. ‘Reasonable accommodation’ began to accrue negative connotations and Mario Dumont’s ADQ leapt from a marginal party to come in ahead of the PQ, in part by attacking the application of reasonable accommodation for visible minorities. Charest created the Bouchard-Taylor Commission Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux differences culturelles (B-T) in response.

Its mandate was to examine the wearing of conspicuous symbols of religious and the more general practices of handling diversity given the core values of Québec as a pluralisticdemocratic and egalitarian society. In “reasonable accommodation”, the term accommodement refers to an agreement arrived at by parties to resolve an issue of dispute entailing compromise, good will and good faith between them. In this specific context, it meant respecting everyone’s cultural and religious sensitivities. This did not happen in many of the pubic hearings and there have been many incidents where it has not happened in the aftermath of the introduction of the Charter on Québec values.

B-T documented that 15 of the 21 cases they examined were widely distorted in the press coverage and in the political reactions, distortions that were correlated with negative public perceptions. Ironically, one of the cases cited implied a dress code was required of nurses providing home care to the Boisbriand Hasidic community in CLSC Thérèse-de-Blainville; in reality, only 1.7% of the clients served by CLSC TdeB & home care services were Hasidic and services to that community constituted only 0.1% of all home health care; the health care workers were never subjected to a dress code.

Given the absence of any evidence of situations requiring restrictive dress codes and given that reasonable accommodation was working excellently on the grass roots level by most Québequois, the B-T Report did not agree with the French initiative in excluding certain forms of religious expression in the public sphere (B-T abridged, 45), including the prohibition against state civil servants wearing religious signs in public, even though the Commission did not know that in France, the charge that led to the ban – that girls wore a hijab for political purposes – had been proven false with the exception of a single case of two girls called Levy with a Jewish father and a Muslim mother.

Further, neutrality of the state in France had become, not simply a mechanism, but an ultimate purpose; secularism was an essential component of the republic’s identity, B-T found that the state prohibition was incompatible with both state neutrality and interculturalism. B-T explicitly linked secularism to institutional mechanisms in civil society and not just in the state institutions.  B-T concluded that, while French laicité was founded in opposition to the organized Catholic Church, Québec did not articulate its emancipatory mission to be directed against any religion. Finally, B-T found that, in contrast to the idea of assimilation dominating French society, interculturalism as the integration in a diverse society was to be accomplished through exchanges between and among citizens who learn to know and understand each other’s culture. 

What made the report even more important was that Gérard Bouchard was the separatist brother of one of Quebec’s most popular separatist leaders, Lucien Bouchard who had been a minister in the Mulroney government and a leader of the Bloc Québecois.  Gérard Bouchard belonged to the “civic nation” rather than the “ethnic nation” view of Québec society. He was trained at the Université Laval and the Université de Paris at Nanterre and had a distinguished career based on solid, deeply empirical and historical studies rooted Québec history and an analysis of the Québec imaginary.

Parti Québecois leader, Pauline Marois, criticized B-T for not enshrining the “common values” of Québeckers in legislation as her proposed Québec Identity Act would have done and her proposed Québec Charter of Values proposes to do. Critics argued that the state and the laws of the land in Québec had not protected the history and the majority culture of French Canada even though all the empirical evidence seemed to contradict such a conclusion. When the B-T Report emerged, Premier Jean Charest on 22 May 2008 dismissed the Report’s recommendation to remove the cross from the legislative chamber. Pauline Marois adopted his words and sentiments: “We cannot erase our history.” The harbinger of the Charter of Values had been laid down and the empirical research and philosophical analysis were ignored. 

The Restrictions of the Proposed Charter of Values

The proposed Québec Charter of Values by the Parti Québecois (PQ) government says it will prohibit the wearing of kippas, turbans, kirpans, hijabs and large crosses (but not small ones) in government offices, schools, daycares and hospitals to ensure the neutrality of the state towards organized religions. It dos not explain why small crosses are acceptable but small kippas are not, but the implication is there in the defense of the large Christian cross hanging in the legislature. The Québec Charter of Values does not impinge on religious practices outside government facilities or state employees when they are off work or if they do not display their religious symbols. The proposed charter does not even infringe on religious freedom to hold different beliefs and by and large engage in different practices. Except for wearing small Christian symbols, the Charter does propose to limit religious expression through the garments or jewellery or hats they wear when and if they are public employees during work This blog focuses only on this controversial provision of banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols when employed by the state during the time when one is working and ignores most of the remainder of the document. It does not take seriously the contention that the Charter will infringe on religious freedom, except to the extent that religion obligates the adherent to wear such appurtenances at all times. The blog insists only that the Charter will impinge on the self-identity of an individual and possibly make that individual uncomfortable with his or her faith and with his or her religious identity.

First, the ostensible motivation for introducing this provision is to avoid conflicts in institutions supported by the state over the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols even though the Bouchard-Taylor Report found that almost all of the incidents of confrontation over religious values occurred in the private sector. The one incident that occurred that took place in a Jewish supported hospital was over a request to two visitors not to eat the ham sandwiches they brought with them within the Jewish hospital which operated according to kosher principles. It was not an issue of wearing an ostentatious religious symbol. Further, unlike Bill 101, formally known as the Charter of the French Language, which Pauline Marois repeatedly compares to the Québec Charter of Values and which the PQ uses to compare the criticisms of both Charters on its website using an online quiz called Charte vs Charte, unlike that period in 1977 when there was a clear empirical demonstration showing that the French language was under threat and immigrants were assimilating en masse into the anglophone community that justified an exception from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is no empirical evidence of any pressing need for the ban on ostentatious religious symbols. Bernard Drainville has not been able to cite any. He has only pointed to the esprit of the people, an ostensible “malaise” in the air. This Charter is mainly defended on the abstraction of ostensible neutrality.

However, the clear evidence is that the Charter is not neutral. The majority of Québeckers will not be affected by the ban. Further, learning a language reinforced an identity. Suppressing the wearing of religious garments and signs represses various minority identities. Bernard Drainville insists that the PQ is open to hearing criticisms but at the same time insists that changes will be minor. Jean-François Lisée, a PQ member from Montreal, said that any changes would be improvements — such as dropping the opting out clause allowing hospitals, municipalities and universities five years to implement the ban, a clause included ostensibly to allow institutions to gradually adjust to these newly imposed strictures, but now seen by PQ members as a gaping escape clause.  

Though the majority of PQ supporters support the proposed new Charter, support among Francophones has dropped dramatically in a very short time. On 23-24 August, a poll found 57 per cent of Québeckers thought the Québec Charter of Values was a good idea.  In a new poll conducted by Léger Marketing on 23-24 September, the support had dropped to 43% (49% of Francophones in general and 55% on the island of Montreal) and 42% were opposed. Msgr. Pierre-Andre Fournier, head of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, criticized this provision of the Charter and warned that it could have unintended detrimental consequences, creating ghettos and isolating Muslim women in their homes. The Charter had to respect religion, not define it as an enemy in the halls of the state. On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized Québec’s controversial proposed Charter and suggested that it would not survive a court challenge.


Against this opposition to wearing ostentatious religious symbols (but not small crosses but definitely small kippas), Québec lost 45,400 jobs since the beginning of the year while the ROC gained 146,400 jobs, lost $1 billion in anticipated revenues preventing the achievement of a balanced budget, buried a report on the future bankruptcy of the Québec pension plan, witnessed dried up investments for developing natural resources in the province. Ontario used the occasion to attract brains away from Québec by advertising that Ontario does not care what is on your head, only what is in it.


The dominant values of Québec do indeed uphold pluralism, democracy and egalitarian values. But the exclusion of the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols does not. It is an appeal to the fears of pure laine francophones that they will become a minority in their own society, a fear without any empirical foundation and, in any case, not really addressed in the proposed Charter. The Charter has been opposed by a cross section of federal politicians – Employment Minister Jason Kenney who has echoed Stephen Harper`s vow to challenge the charter in the courts, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair, who has dubbed the proposed charter as an appeal to “base politics” and as fostering “state-sanctioned discrimination”, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who accused Marois of playing “divisive identity politics”.  The political foundation for the charter is a populist appeal not based on history or any empirical evidence that it will address any real problems. It is riven with inconsistency. It is also strongly opposed by sovereignists like Gérard Bouchasrd who are champions of a civic nation of Québec; he saw only harm and divisiveness emerging from the Charter. When a Québec mother objects to having her child taken care of by a woman wearing a hijab, the problem is not in the woman wearing the hijab but in that Québec woman. When a patient in an American hospital objects to a black doctor taking care of him or a patient in a Canadian hospital objects to a Sikh doctor offering medical care or a Jewish man on a gurney in an Israeli hospital in the film Attack objects to a Palestinian doctor offering emergency services, the fault is in the objector not in the one offering neutral and professional services.