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MARGIN NOTES

Quebec’s fractious charter debate

Professors, like society at large, are divided on the issue.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JAN 22 2014
charter symbols
Public servants in Quebec would be banned from wearing these “ostentatious” symbols.

It’s a safe bet that there were some awkward conversations in Quebec during the holidays over the province’s proposed charter of values – shades of the many previous, divisive sovereignty debates. My father-in-law tried to engage me several times into a discussion on the subject; however, I knew we would likely not find common ground and I demurred.

Similar scenarios are playing out at Quebec’s universities. Those presidents (or rectors) of Quebec’s universities who have voiced a position on the subject have all uniformly come out against it, including Alan Shepard at Concordia University, Suzanne Fortier at McGill University, Guy Breton at Université de Montreal, Luce Samoisette at Université de Sherbrooke and Robert Proulx at Université du Québec à Montréal. Some of these leaders, such as Dr. Proulx at UQAM, have stressed that his opposition is not targeted at the principles of a secular state contained in the charter but because the charter’s restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols are in conflict with the university’s principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

At the faculty level, things get messier. No better example of that is at UQAM, where one group called “L’UQAM Ouverte” (an “open” UQAM) is encouraging professors, staff and their unions to oppose the charter; while another group called “Pour une UQAM laïque” (“For a secular UQAM”) supports the charter and criticizes the university administration’s position. Departmental meetings, always potentially fraught, must be getting even more uncomfortable. Most of the unions representing Quebec professors, meanwhile, have declined to take a position on the matter because they are simply unable to reach a consensus. Quebec’s major student associations also declined to comment.

What I find interesting about this debate over the charter is that it doesn’t fit easily into the usual right-left political dynamic. Academics, to generalize, are thought of as being more liberal in their views, and this is often portrayed in the media as a sort of elitist, elastic moral relativism – compared to the desire of conservatives, again to generalize, for a simplistic, black-and-white moral certainty. But this generalization just doesn’t map well with the charter debate. There are right-wingers appalled by the charter and left-wingers who applaud it, and vice-versa. Professors, too, are all over the map.

The charter, tabled as Bill 60 last November, goes officially by the rather unwieldy title, “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests.” As the title implies, there is much in it dealing with human rights, although I have also read that most legal scholars believe much of that is already covered in existing Quebec laws, including the province’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The real point of debate is the restriction on the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols, most notably the hijab, in the public sector.

(This may be trivial, but allow me a slight anecdotal digression. Before the holidays I attended a Christmas choral concert at a local high school. OK, it probably wasn’t called a “Christmas” concert, but there was a mixture of traditional Christmas tunes with other non-traditional songs. At one point, a class stepped on stage all wearing Santa hats. Two teenage girls in the group, wearing hijabs, simply placed their Santa hats over their headscarves, unfazed. I found myself surprisingly moved by that. This, I thought, was a wonderful symbol of what Canada represents.)

Symbols are interesting things because, to use a glaring tautology, they’re so darn symbolic. Some symbols – the peace sign, for example – may today be seen as rather benign. Others – like the rainbow flag, for instance – may have more layers of meaning. Still others – say, the swastika – are very potent, even malignant. As for the charter debate, I would be very interested to hear a discourse on it from a semiotician.

Indeed, the whole charter is itself rather one grand symbol, isn’t it? It is like a sly, delicate dance, with its own coded language and imagery. Like any symbol, its message is open to interpretation. However, in this instance, to me at least, I think the message to Quebec’s minorities is disturbingly clear: you’re not welcome here.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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