With the defeat of the Parti Quebecois in Monday’s Quebec provincial election, Canada as a whole dodged a bullet. Yes, one could say the bullet we dodged was the risk of Quebec separatism and a third in the series of referendums that threaten to tear the country apart. Many commentators are saying that the PQ’s devastating loss represents the end of separatism as a force for a generation or more. But, according to opinion polls, most Quebeckers – anglo-, franco- and allophone – were already opposed to both a referendum and to separation. The bullet we dodged was more immediate.
While the threat of a sovereignty referendum is probably what led to the PQ’s defeat, the more immediate issue was the PQ government’s Charter of Values, which would have almost certainly become law had the results turned out differently Monday. The proposed charter would have prevented government employees, and perhaps recipients of government services, including students at public universities, from exhibiting prominent displays of religious affiliation. The draft charter was the latest in decades of struggle in Quebec to preserve the majority French language and culture.
Quebec has always been the place in Canada where preservation of the majority culture (in Quebec’s case, most exemplified by the French language) has been of greatest priority. But a large proportion of Muslims in Quebec come from French-speaking North Africa and, therefore, the “values” that the charter would protect were no longer solely associated with linguistic assimilation. Marois’ PQ identified a broader range of defining characteristics under the umbrella of “secularism.”
The rhetoric around the proposed charter overwhelmingly centred on Muslims and Muslim practices, but we have, in Canada, concepts of equality that encourage us to treat in ways that are alike people who are different. So, rather than addressing whether there is a qualitative difference between, say, a full-face-covering veil and a turban, the charter attempted a sort of equal-opportunity bigotry. Even in distinct-from-the-rest-of-Canada Quebec, a law that would discriminate against people based on observant religious identity would have to discriminate equally. Crucifixes, turbans, kippot and other “ostentatious” evidence of religiosity would have been restricted under the charter along with Muslim head and face coverings – but with notable exemptions for certain symbols related to Christianity in public spaces and government buildings.
In his speech after resoundingly defeating Marois, Liberal leader and premier-elect Philippe Couillard addressed Quebec’s diverse citizens. “We share the values of generosity, compassion, solidarity and equality of men and women with our anglophone fellow citizens who also built Quebec and with our fellow citizens who came from all over the world to write the next chapter in our history with us,” he said. “I want to tell them that the time of injury is over. Welcome, you are at home here.”
These inclusive words suggest the miserable, unnecessary social divisions sewn by Marois and the PQ will no longer have sway within the government. Yet, while the PQ exploited and exacerbated social conflict with demagogic intent, the root fears, concerns and prejudices that allowed them to do so remain.
PQ or no PQ, Canada will continue to address the role not only of religion in the public sphere, but the impact on society of immigration. Successfully for the most part, Canadians have struggled over the generations to respond to successive waves of immigrants – and newcomers have struggled to respond to the demands made of them in a diverse country of immigrants. We have integrated new Canadians who believe in different gods, or no god, who speak hundreds of different languages and practise myriad distinct rituals and cultures, and the debate over degrees of accommodation is continuous. In the absence of a PQ government in Quebec, hopefully it will proceed with more nuance, subtlety and intelligence.