Back to Normal in Quebec?
In September 2013 I posted a blog about Quebec’s Charter of Values, which you can see here: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html. In brief, this proposed Charter said that people who worked for the Quebec government should not be allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols such as the Jewish kipa (skull cap for men), the Muslim hijab (head scarf for women), and the Sikh turban (for men). The principle behind this proposal was laicité, or secularism.
The governing party that proposed this Charter was the nationalist Parti Québecois (PQ). On April 7, 2014 the PQ was resoundingly defeated by the Liberal Party in a provincial election. So everybody worried about this Charter can now breathe a sign of relief.
Who would even defend such a Charter, you might ask, assuming that anyone who did so was just afraid of “the other,” residents of Quebec not descended from the original French Catholic settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Certainly it seemed that many of the PQ’s supporters were rural Quebeckers who had little contact with the many immigrants groups that are common in Quebec’s largest city, Montreal.
|A typical Canadian- Wiki Commons|
But some Quebeckers supported the Charter as a good model of government, without being prejudiced against religious or ethnic minorities. On March 13, 2014 I co-sponsored a debate on the Charter at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I teach. Guillaime Rousseau, a law professor from the Université de Sherbrooke, defended the Charter.
Roussean argued that laicité reflects the French Republican tradition. He said this mean that the state gives citizens the opportunity to free themselves from their various communities—such as their ethnic community and their religion. So, the Charter of Values would help individual Quebeckers free themselves from religious and ethnic practices, if they so wished. I agree that the state should protect citizens from being coerced or pressured into following religious or ethnic practices that oppress them, or with which they disagree. But I think the Republican tradition goes too far.
Rousseau argued that the liberal tradition, as found in English Canada, was based on freedom from the state, rather than freedom through the state, the Republican way. I prefer the liberal tradition because it acknowledges that there can be advantages to membership in religious and ethnic groups. Many individuals feel a need to belong to groups of people with similar beliefs, customs, or languages. In these groups there is a feeling of familiarity, and of being welcomed, withough being judged by competitive market standards. These groups are also politically important: they stand between the individual and her government. Such groups can organize people and help them form a bulwark against an intrusive state, if need be.
Professor Rousseau also talked about the principle of cultural convergence, as opposed to English-Canada’s stress on multiculturalism. I agree with him that cultural convergence is a worthwhile concept, especially in so far as it supports underlying liberal values. These values—of freedom equality, respect and recognition--underlie what many Canadians think is a “multicultural” society. We are not really multicultural in Canada: we have a unifying small-l liberal culture, which permits people to act in the private sphere as they see fit, as long as they do not break the law. So we no longer pressure immigrants to change their names, stop speaking their native languages, or change their religion. I argued this in an article I published in 1999 called "Canadian' as an Ethnic Category: Implications for Multiculturalism and National Unity, " in Canadian Public Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 523-37.
|Sikh Cadets at Canada's Royal Military College-Wiki Commons|
But multiculturalism shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the basis of Canada’s liberal human rights. I agree there should be some limits to cultural accommodation, as the Quebec Charter proposed. We can’t have the kind of situation I posted about on January 17, 2014, where a male student at York University asked to be excused from a group activity because he said his religion prohibited from interacting with strange females http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014_01_01_archive.html.
I also agree that there are some situations where an individual must uncover her face: I don’t think the Charter’s insistence that people seeking or providing public services must uncover their face is unreasonable. A while ago a case went to the Supreme Court of Canada. A woman bringing rape charges against two male relatives wanted to testify in court while wearing the niqab, which covers the face. Instead of ruling that in such an important situation, where her testimony might send innocent men to jail, the woman must uncover her face, The Supreme Court came out with a wishy-washy ruling, essentially leaving the decision to the individual judge. That was a mistake.
There are some religious and ethnic practices that I really do not like. I would hope that any Muslim woman in Canada wearing hijab does so freely, but I am sure that some wear it because they are pressured or coerced into doing so by their families. If that coercion includes violence, there are already laws against it; violence within the family is prohibited in Canada regardless of the reason. But if it’s just social or familial pressure, a law against it is foolish. We can disagree with some customs and hope that women and girls will voluntarily remove themselves from them, but we can’t legislate their removal.