For the many Canadians that have misgivings about Canadian multiculturalism, the Parti Québécois government has offered an alternative with its proposed Charter of Quebec Values. Critics of multiculturalism have frequently insisted that the generous accommodation of diverse cultural and religious expression undermines the effort to establish shared national values.
The PQ proposes to correct this with legislation that restricts the visible display of religious symbols by employees of public and para-public institutions. The proposal will remedy the overly generous accommodation of religious groups on the part of Canadian proponents of multiculturalism. The proposal's chief spokesperson Bernard Drainville insists the Values Charter will be a source of unity, social cohesion and intergroup harmony.
With its stated purpose of creating a neutral secular state, the PQ's multicultural alternative transforms what were previously regarded as fundamental rights into accommodations. By consequence a nurse wearing a hijab, a doctor with a kipa or a high school teacher with a turban will be fired for committing an offence against Quebec values. But the PQ's Charter of Values is not without its own set of accommodations to its vision of the neutral state. Wearing a small cross around your neck passes the test. Also, to protect the province's historic heritage the large crucifix above the speaker's chair in the Quebec National Assembly is sacrosanct.
To preserve unity and cohesion, the neutral state envisioned by the PQ includes an opt-out clause for municipalities, hospitals, day cares and universities. Some values Charter advocates insist that Jewish doctors will not be affected by the proposal because the Jewish General Hospital can opt out. There is a desperate need to remind some people that not all doctors wearing a kipa are at the Jewish General and they may imprudently visit another health institution. They may need to be offered a temporary exemption from the Charter. All municipalities on the Island of Montreal have already expressed their intention to opt out should the PQ proposal ever become law. So much for the promise of unity and cohesion that Mr. Drainville enthusiastically hailed when he introduced the proposal.
The PQ has insisted that the proposal is a basis for discussion. Beware however there are limits. Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani learned this the hard way when she presented a harsh critique of the proposal. It's true that she didn't mince words, but her immediate firing from the Bloc sent a message to those sovereigntists that hold an opposing view of the Charter.
PQ officials have no hesitation in describing Canadian multiculturalism as a failure that is a source of societal division and thus ill-suited to Quebec's reality. Yet officials from the rest of Canada are warned by Mr. Drainville not to get involved in the debate over values which he insists must be decided by Quebeckers only. This view has been echoed by Le Devoir columnist Michel David, who described any intervention from the rest of Canada as paternalistic. In effect, the rights of "our" Muslims, Jews and Sikhs here in Quebec is not the concern of the rest of Canada. And to push this so-called logic further, it is inappropriate if not outright heresy for the members of Quebec's religious minorities to appeal to their federal representatives for support. There is however one caveat, if in the rest of Canada you have a favorable view of the PQ Charter your involvement in the conversation will be more than welcome with the very real prospect that you will be quoted by Messieurs Drainville and David. If you're well enough known and wish to express a positive opinion you may even get a mention from Premier Pauline Marois.
It's true that Canadian multiculturalism is not perfect. There is an ongoing debate around its merits and at times policy adjustments have been deemed necessary. But looking at the alternative proposed by the Quebec government, Canada's brand of multiculturalism looks pretty good after all.
Jack Jedwab is Executive VP of the Canadian Institute of Identities and Migration and the Association for Canadian Studies