Nora Jaffary, chair of Concordia University’s history department, is not a Muslim. But she is wearing a hijab to protest Bill 60 – entitled the Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests (PDF) – tabled by the Quebec government in November.
If the bill were to pass in its current form, Dr. Jaffary would have to remove her veil. In fact, all public and parapublic employees – including professors and non-teaching staff at universities – would no longer be allowed to wear “conspicuous religious symbols” on the job. Kippas, hijabs, turbans, burqas, niqabs and large Christian and Orthodox crosses would be prohibited. University students, like other citizens, would not be affected by the ban. But students who work on campus as lecturers or research assistants, for instance, would have to comply with the values charter.
“The idea that wearing a religious sign is going to impede our ability to perform our job is so simplistic,” Dr. Jaffary said. “I have a really hard time imagining how institutions would comply with this. It would require setting up almost inquisition tribunals.”
Dr. Jaffary is not the only one at the university who is concerned about the impact of the PQ government’s proposed charter. “The bill in its current state has created a lot of worry and concern across the institution,” said Alan Shepard, president of Concordia University.
Like Dr. Shepard, the rectors at Université de Montréal, McGill University, Université de Sherbrooke and Université du Québec à Montréal have gone public in their criticism of the ban on the wearing of religious symbols. A number of them plan to make their voices heard again during public hearings on the values charter, which are running until early spring in Quebec City.
Guy Breton, rector of Université de Montréal, was scheduled to present his institution’s brief on February 7 (after University Affairs had gone to press). “There would be major problems in applying Bill 60 if it were brought into force, and it would needlessly weigh down the diversity management process, which is already well defined by the [Quebec] Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and by jurisprudence,” the document says.
“We support the general objectives of the charter, that is, religious neutrality and the secular state, as well as equality between men and women,” Dr. Breton added in interview with University Affairs. “But we find it pointless to ban the wearing of religious symbols. In the past
20 years, there have been no grievances or arbitration over the issues addressed by the bill.”
The proposed charter is contrary to university autonomy, McGill University states in its brief: “Universities, their professors and their employees are not agents of the state. Treating them as such denies the institutional autonomy that universities enjoy and that is the cornerstone of academic freedom.”
McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier is convinced that the charter would hamper the ability of Quebec, and even Canadian universities outside Quebec, to attract students. “The nuances between provincial and federal policies can be difficult for foreigners to grasp,” she said. “Some may believe this bill concerns all of Canada. Our reputation as a welcoming country could suffer.”
“Imagine the international scandal we would have on our hands if a university had to dismiss an eminent professor because he refused to remove his turban,” said Robert Lacroix, former rector of U de M and now a fellow at the Montreal-based Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations (or CIRANO).
The threat of a brain drain is also a concern. “The results of an internal consultation show that employees are seriously considering leaving their jobs because of the charter,” said Normand Rinfret, director general and CEO of the McGill University Health Centre. He added that if the bill were passed in its current form, the MUHC would begin legal proceedings to prevent its implementation.
Dr. Breton is of the same opinion: “If the government were to ask me to dismiss a professor for wearing a kippa, I would have no choice but to explore the possibility of contesting the request, because the university is not an arm of the government.”
Louis-Philippe Lampron, law professor at Université Laval, believes the values charter would not pass the test of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms before the courts. “Prohibiting religious symbols is too broad to be considered a reasonable limitation to the freedom of conscience and religion of civil servants,” he said.
The university community, like the rest of Quebec society, is divided over the ban on the wearing of religious symbols. The uneasiness is palpable. Most university administrations, student associations and employee unions approached for this article refused to grant an interview or did not return calls. The U de M teachers’ union (Syndicat général des professeurs et professeures de l’Université de Montréal), the Quebec university student federation (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) and the Université du Québec network all said they didn’t want to take a position on the issue.
Others strongly support the bill. Gérald Larose, a professor of social work at UQAM, is one of some 100 signatories to the petition “For a Secular UQAM.” He said, “With the charter, we are saying that whoever wants to attend a Quebec university can show their religious convictions, and that out of respect for this freedom, the professors will demonstrate religious neutrality.”
“Opposing the charter is like opposing the status quo that exists almost everywhere in our universities,” said Guy Rocher, a sociology professor at U de M. He said there is an established consensus that professors are not free to display their political or religious convictions. “This bill does not limit faith, but its expression in a university setting,” he said.
David Koussens, professor and holder of the Research Chair on Religions in Advanced Modernity at Université de Sherbrooke, disagreed. “Teachers have the right to share their political or religious opinions as long as they do so responsibly and so as not to influence students,” he said. “The university must let students be exposed to different points of view, to better develop their capacity for critical thinking.”
The outcome of the debate remains uncertain. There are rumours of a spring election, which means that Bill 60 could die on the order paper. The Parti Québécois is not hiding its intention to make the charter an election issue. Will there be enough time for supporters and detractors of the bill to reach an agreement? “I hope we will find a way through and that common sense will prevail over intolerance,” said Université de Montréal’s Dr. Breton.