Playing the Indian Card

Monday, September 16, 2013

Quebec's Charter of Values

Absolutely everybody is against Quebec’s proposed new Charter of Values, which makes me suspect it must be a good idea.

Mind you, it is ridiculous if its intent is, as stated, to make the provincial government religiously “neutral.” Firstly, banning religious expression does not make the government neutral; it makes it anti-religion. Secondly, this, if seriously enforced, would drive a wrecking ball through the width and depth of Quebec culture. It is not just the matter of the large crucifix in the National Assembly. There is the cross on Mount Royal, recently refurbished with $2 million in provincial funds. There is the cross in the French version of “O Canada.” There is the cross on the provincial flag, originally flown in honour of Mary. Not to mention holidays for Christmas, Easter, and St. Jean Baptiste Day, or the Christian customs of dividing the week into seven days, or numbering years from the birth of Christ. Need I continue?

Possibly too large?

But the bill does not really foresee banning religious expression. It expressly grants exemptions to religious symbols that are part of Quebec’s “cultural heritage.” The real problem with the bill, perhaps, is the hypocrisy of this. It leaves the bill wide open to criticism, indeed ridicule.

But suppose the bill were slightly reframed to instead explicitly enshrine Catholicism as the cultural heritage of Quebec, and prohibit very public displays of other religious commitments? Is that so awful?

Just as Quebec has some real reason to feel culturally vulnerable as a small island of Francophones surrounded in North America by a vast English sea, it is also and equally a small island of Catholics surrounded in North America by a vast sea of Protestants. This experience, at least as much as language, is what makes Quebec culture distinct. Witness, indeed, the cross on Mount Royal, the provincial flag in honour of Mary, St. Jean Baptiste Day, and so on.

"Car ton bras sait porter l'épée,
Il sait porter la croix."

Moreover, the religion, if measured by church attendance, seems to be under greater threat currently than the language. If it is permissible to protect the language, in part by prohibiting large public displays of other languages, why is it not permissible to protect the religion too—say, by prohibiting large public displays of other religions?

We in North America might be inclined to see this as a violation of human rights. But there has long been an established church much like this in the United Kingdom, which does not do particularly badly, overall, in the human rights tables. Similar customs are found in Germany, Norway, Greece, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Israel. Also not among the most repressive countries one could name.

Let it be said, however, that any such law would not, in fact, legitimately prohibit the burqa. It is not a part of Muslim religion; it is simply an expression of feminine modesty. Just like the Catholic ban—still in force—on women uncovering their heads in church.

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