The Parti Québécois’ (PQ) proposal to ban public sector workers from wearing religious symbols in government workplaces has faced criticism this past week, including an opposition campaign run by several McGill professors, protests in Montreal, and criticism from political leaders across Canada.
If enacted, the Quebec Charter of Values would ban public sector workers from wearing religious symbols in government workplaces, including turbans, kippahs, and large crosses. Public sector workers who may be affected include provincial court justices, teachers, civil servants, university staff, health-care workers, and municipal employees.
In addition, the Charter would require that one’s face be uncovered when providing or receiving a state service—a clause which could include students, although exact details have not yet been released.
Effects on McGill
As a university, McGill would have the opportunity to opt out of the ban every five years, which could be achieved through a vote in Senate. Although Principal Suzanne Fortier addressed McGill’s stance on the issue on Tuesday, she did not directly identify the course of action that McGill will take in response to the proposition.
“The university must remain a place for the free and full exchange of ideas,” she said. “The proposal to prohibit our professors and staff from wearing visible religious symbols runs contrary to our principles. The wearing of such symbols in no way interferes with the religious and political neutrality of McGill as an institution.”
According to the Vice-President University Affairs of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), Joey Shea, McGill can address the Charter in several different ways.
“[The Senate] can comment publicly on the legislation, they can officially oppose it via their internal governance processes or they could do nothing at all,” she said. “For example, a motion could be brought forth to Senate by a senator asking the Senate to officially denounce the legislation. However, Senate deals with the academic activities of the University, so such a motion would have to be framed within these terms.”
Shea said she expects Fortier to mention the issue at the first Senate meeting of the semester on Sept. 18.
Since the Charter’s official announcement last Tuesday, the proposal has stimulated debate from both professors and students on campus. If McGill does not opt out, professors and university staff would be unable to wear certain forms of religious symbols to work.
On Saturday, many McGill students participated in a Montreal-wide protest against the Charter.
“McGill’s got to fight this,” said Thomas Leenders, a PhD student in religious studies who attended the protest. “McGill as an institution has to have the interest of its employees and its students at heart, and […] fight this policy of discrimination against religious minorities.”
According to SSMU’s constitution on General Assemblies (GAs), SSMU cannot take an official stance on an external policy that does not directly affect the acitivites of students. However, according to Samuel Harris, Vice-President External, SSMU can find other ways to take a stance on the issue.
“Council can mandate the VP External to write a letter to the Quebec Government or a letter to the City of Montreal, expressing a certain point of view,” Harris said. “I see it as a good opportunity to go to the GA to actually debate [the Charter], because nobody I’ve talked to doesn’t want to take a strong position on this.”
Professor organizes campaign to promote awareness
Catherine Lu, a political science professor at McGill, started a campaign last week that calls on professors to wear visible religious symbols to classes and lectures as an act of protest and to create awareness for the issue. Lu, who identifies as an atheist, wore a hijab to her classes last week and said she plans to continue wearing it next week to raise awareness and generate discussion in her classes.
“I also take it off once I leave the classroom, so in no way am I adopting a religion and pretending to be someone who is faithful to a religion,” she added. “It’s clearly a kind of instructive act and a kind of protest because of the context of the proposed charter, which says people should not be wearing such things in the context of a classroom.”
Several professors from McGill have expressed support for Lu’s campaign, including Rex Brynen, Benjamin Forest, and Darin Barney, who have all agreed to participate in the campaign. However, Lu has also received some criticism.
“Some people who actually do subscribe to certain religious practices and beliefs […] worry that this kind of idea might lead to a kind of trivialization of religious belief and practice, so they worry […] that maybe some people would just make fun of it, or find it comical because obviously I’m not Muslim,” Lu explained.
However, Lu said that she does not think that McGill should opt out of the legislation if it passes, saying that this action would legitimize the bill.
While it has already been met with opposition, the Charter has a long way to go before it can pass as legislation. The PQ is a minority government, which means that they need support from other parties in order to pass it. The Charter will be tabled by the PQ at the National Assembly and ready for debate within the next couple of months.
According to Bernard Drainville, the National Assembly minister in charge of developing the Charter, the purpose of the proposal is to enforce Quebec’s secularism.
“If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image,” Drainsville said at a press conference last Tuesday.
However, there are certain aspects of religious life that the Charter would not affect—for example, religious symbols that are considered part of Quebec’s cultural heritage, such as crosses in the Quebec Legislature or the cross on top of Mount Royal. It would also still allow public sector workers to wear small religious symbols, such as jewelry, and opening prayer would continue at municipal council meetings. Additionally, the charter wouldn’t remove property tax exemptions for religious buildings such as mosques.
The Charter has been popular among many Quebecers, with 66 per cent of residents in support, according to survey firm SOM. However, many political leaders in Montreal and across the country have denounced it. On Wednesday, the mayors of the municipal districts of the island of Montreal unanimously voted to condemn the Charter.
“To reach unanimity like that, east-to-west in Montreal, is exceptional,” Philippe Roy, mayor of Mount Royal, told The Globe and Mail. “But we’re all sending the same signal to Quebec—this is not representative of what Montreal is.”
At the federal level, members of all three major parties have criticized the Charter.
“The PQ government’s plan is divisive, negative and emotional,” Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau told media. “It is designed to be that way. Quebecers will reject it.”
Conservative Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said that the federal government would make an effort to review the Charter of Values to identify whether it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
“If it’s determined that a prospective law violates the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled, we will defend those rights vigorously,” Kenney said.
—Additional reporting by Erica Friesen.