Why Those Who Support the Parti Quebecois’ proposed Charte des Valeurs are Wrong
“I don’t care what you wear on your head.”
Throughout this whole episode, and anytime the spectre of religious accommodation rears its ugly head in the ongoing cacophony that is political dialogue in Quebec, those who, wanting to profess their tolerance and support of ethnic, religious, and cultural freedom, say things like “I don’t care what you wear on your head.” It reminds me of those who say they have nothing against Gays, “as long as they don’t touch me.” Gays don’t indiscriminately make passes at everyone who crosses their paths. Likewise, those of a religious persuasion, as it were, will not indiscriminately try to convert you.
To the first point, I do care what you wear on your head, or around your neck, or draped over your shoulders. But make no mistake. My use of the word care does not imply that I am concerned about how your religious and cultural garb may or may not affect me and my children. Rather I care deeply about who you are, where you come from, and how you practice your culture. That means that I care enough to ask, so that I may learn, what a turban is for, and how you tie it, what a hijab is for, and why you choose to wear it, why you choose to wear a simple kipah, or an elaborate shtroimel. If we don’t care and never ask, then we will never learn about one another, and we might never learn how to co-exist, how to share the space, and how to greet one another. “Hello” is a good start. But “shana tova” or “eid Mubarak” is a lot nicer, warmer. It tells the other person that you are interested, that you do care, and that you took the time to learn about them. It tells them that they are a welcome and important part of our society.
The separation of church and state
Those who support the proposed charter make the same argument over and over again for the separation of church and state, and express concern over the ostentatious (characterized by vulgar or pretentious) display of religious symbols, particularly in the public sector: government workers & civil servants, teachers in publicly-funded schools & daycares, medical professionals, etc. They fear, I can only assume, that an overly religious public servant might take the time, while processing a request for a driver’s permit, or administering medication in a hospital, or reading “Love You Forever” to a group of 4-year olds, to proselytize, to preach the good word, to recruit you or your children to their religion. Why they fear this is beyond me. These fears are unfounded, to say the least. Nobody has ever tried to convert me to their way except for unilingual Francophones and separatists (and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness, but I digress.).
The separation of church and state refers to government. It does not, and should not, apply to those who work in public institutions. Doctors, nurses, teachers, and employment office workers do not represent the government or any particular party. If they did, then Liberals would lose their jobs under a Conservative administration, and vice versa. Rather, the separation of church and state dictates that the workings of government should not be influenced by a state religion. To wit, despite Quebec’s cultural history, the church no longer calls the shots. Nor should it. That’s what it means to be living in a secular society: not that we do not share our home with other cultural communities, but that no religious teachings slither their way into government policy or legislation. Nor will it. Even if someone with a kipah, hijab, or a turban works for the government. Consider that there are at least two Sikh MPs in Canada. One of them wears a turban and sports a long beard. While I don’t keep up with the news in Edmonton’s Sherwood Park, I’m pretty sure that The Honourable Tim Uppal has never… or at least has not yet… tried to convert Canada, if not his own constituents, to Sikhism.
When Lawrence Bergman was sworn in as a Member of the National Assembly, representing the Liberal Party of Quebec, he wore a yarmulke, and took his oath of office holding a Chumash, a book of the Pentateuch, the first five book of The Bible. It was the Chumash given to him at his bar mitzvah. He did this in the National Assembly! On TV! Since that time, not one Quebecker under his purview was forced to eat kosher or unwillingly give up his foreskin.
Neutral, adj. the absence of declared or intentional bias, cognate with neuter, of gender, being neither one nor the other, colloquially: having had your balls cut off.
Stuck in neutral: still, moving neither forward nor backward, no matter how hard you press the gas pedal, related to the concept of simply spinning one’s wheels.
Neutral is a term that, at least in context of the Charte des Valeurs, makes me uncomfortable. Quebec claims to be fiercely proud of what they say is our most important value: equality of the sexes (I can’t say just how equal the sexes are in Quebec in particular, except to say that gendre equality in our society is as yet an illusion). From that position they argue for equality above all else. But equality is not the same thing as homogeneity. To want to feel that we are all the same does not mean we want the kind of sameness that in another time and in another place would have been dangerous. That sameness, to borrow from Orwell, implies that we are all the same, but some of us are more the same than others. We should be working toward inclusion, not assimilation. We should be working toward equality and acceptance, not simply tolerance. In a recent interview with Le Devoir, for which she later apologized, Pauline Marois said that in England, and other societies where multiculturalism is encouraged, people get into fist fights. That’s not because of multiculturalism, it is in spite of it. Because in those places government and media sow the seeds of ethnic dissension rather than promote tolerance and acceptance. The way to put an end to that is to put MORE kipas, turbans, and hijabs in government. Not less. You can choose to foster a society in which diversity and equality go hand in hand. Or you can fan the flames of difference-based hate, which is what the proposed Charte des Valeurs will do, indeed is doing already.
We need to show the government, and the Quebec population, that the proposed instruction manual on how to hate and whom to single out is in fact NOT necessary in a society that values acceptance and equality. In the Parti Quebecois’ bid to promote inclusiveness, or at least their own version of it, they are actually showing themselves to be more repressive. If we are genuinely concerned about gendre equality, and if we accept that this apparent push for secularism or neutrality is really a thinly veiled (ha ha) Islamophobia, then we need to open our doors to Muslim women, make them feel welcome, empower them. Help them to understand that their presence in Quebec matters. Help them to understand what it means to be a woman in Quebec regardless of what they choose… CHOOSE!… to wear. In fact, as a powerful woman in Quebec, as the first ever female premier, Mme. Marois should set the example: she should put on a veil of her own. That way she can show how she can still lead the province without us having to look at her face.
Postscript: the recent march in favour of the proposed Charte des Valeurs, sparsely attended though it may have been, worries me. It calls to mind a time in pre-WWII Europe when those of “purer” race marched against targeted groups. And let us not forget, lest we be doomed to repeat it, the history of this very province, and the former Lt. Governor Jean-Louis Roux who, as a young student wore a swastika and participated in an anti-Jewish protest. Yes, he later apologized and tried to make up for it (when called on the carpet). But events like these existed and, like the cross in the National Assembly, a part of Quebec’s history and heritage.