In the Canadian province of Quebec, religious groups have been up in arms over the past several months regarding a controversial piece of secularism legislation known as the Quebec Charter of Values, or Bill 60.
The bill, which was announced by the governing, separatist Parti Quebecois back in March, and officially proposed in September, would ban provincial civil servants from wearing “overt” religious symbols or garb in the workplace—a move that would, of course, have far-reaching consequences for the thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, and so on, who go to work each day wearing a hijab, kippah, turban or even a large crucifix. While the Charter of Values has been condemned as xenophobic across the federal and provincial political spectrum, and lambasted as a misguided crackdown on religious observance, the PQ appears intent on carrying it forward as a key agenda item in a future election.
Unsurprisingly, the bill has become a divisive issue in Quebec society. Polling numbers suggest there is sizeable support in the largely French-speaking, heavily French Canadian regions outside cosmopolitan Montreal and its environs. Meanwhile, there are reports of veiled Muslim women being harassed on the street. And last month, the director of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital stated the institution would simply ignore the “prejudicial” bill.
Should the bill, or an amended version, pass, it will no doubt impact Quebec’s 90,000-strong Jewish population, which is mostly concentrated in the Montreal area. Thousands, frustrated by strict French-language laws, as well as the PQ’s efforts to secure sovereignty for Quebec, have left the province in recent decades. Moment asked Ira Robinson, a professor of religion at Montreal’s Concordia University and expert on Canadian Jewry, to unpack the charter and what it means for the province’s Jewish community.
What is going on in Quebec politics and society that galvanized the provincial government to propose this bill?
It’s happening because of electoral politics in the province of Quebec. The present Quebec government, the Parti Quebecois, is a minority government. They’re trying to create an issue on which they think they might be able to get reelected [as a majority government]. It’s very much a reaction to immigration concerns, and more specifically, to large Muslim immigration in Quebec. Quebec wants French-speaking immigrants, but most of the French-speaking immigrants available to it come from North Africa, or they’re North African or Middle Eastern immigrants to France. The Muslim community in Quebec is growing very strongly and there’s a large reaction to the sight of veiled Muslim women on the streets of Montreal, and elsewhere in Quebec.
Nominally, the legislation is meant to promote secularism—but it also seems like a flagrant attack on religious values.
It’s secularism as it’s understood in France, not as it’s understood in the rest of North America. In France, for instance, there’s a law [passed in 2010] that does some of the things this particular bill wants to do, namely prevent women who wear hijabs and burkas and such like that from becoming government workers. It’s part of the PQ’s larger idea to create a body of fundamental values—also based on the primacy of the French language, the equality of men and women, and so on—that people in Quebec can believe in. If you read the legislation carefully, being religiously neutral is touted as one of those fundamental values. In Quebec, there is polling to show that there are a number of people—certainly far from everybody, but reasonable numbers—who would support a law.
Historically, Quebec has been a very Catholic society. What about that part of the province’s identity?
Quebec now is very much a post-Catholic society. Statistically, less and less people are going to church, less and less people are getting married in church and less and less people are getting married in the first place. Quebec identity is a process very much in transition, and part of the debate over this bill talks to this idea that people are puzzled about where they are where they’re going.
A lot of public antipathy over the bill has come from the Muslim community. But religiously observant Jews will be affected as well. What’s the Jewish community’s perspective?
First of all, the Jewish community’s perspective is that they’re being targeted largely because you can’t have a piece of legislation in a Western country that singles out one religious group. The Jewish part of it is largely collateral damage. That having been said, if the legislation is passed and it’s enforced, it will have consequences for the Jewish community. Yet, in every reaction by the Jewish community, either officially or unofficially, no one is calling this anti-Semitic. It’s being deplored strongly, it’s being opposed strongly, but it’s not being referred to as anti-Semitic. Publicly, the Jewish community is saying very little. There’s been lobbying in the Quebec government, a lot of op-ed type pieces—a good deal of stuff like that.
Have there been protests?
There have been protests by Muslims and there have been protests by Jews and Muslims. But none of these have been spectacularly large, and none of these protests have been violent, so they don’t get in the news.
Should the bill pass, some people have suggested there might be a mass exodus of Jews out of Quebec, much like there was around the time of the separation referendum in the mid-1990s. How likely is that to occur?
I don’t think there will be anything quite that dramatic. On the other hand, this certainly isn’t an encouraging factor for the Montreal Jewish community. Over the years, since those dramatic exoduses, English education has been restricted and there’s become more of a professional need to demonstrate competence in the French language. People will leave because they have better professional opportunities. But the only way the bill, in this current form, is going to be passed is if there’s another election and a majority PQ government is elected. As a minority, if they wanted to pass this bill, they would have to put in a number of compromises. I don’t anticipate anything happening any time real soon, and I don’t anticipate anything dramatic—but I do think this has divided Quebec society along ethnic and linguistic lines, between Montreal and its large non-French Canadian population and the rest of Quebec.