Since first hearing about the Parti Québécois’ proposed “Charte des valeurs,” I have gone through the typical range of emotions that I keep hearing all around me: outrage, shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration, fear. What most continues to bewilder me is the idea that any democratic government feels that it can legislate the values of its people. If a Taliban government announced that it was planning to legislate a charter of values for Afghanistan, I could at least recognize a level of coherence. But who ever heard of a western democracy announcing plans to legislate people’s values?
"Education" too often means simply replacing one set of ideas with another set that the educator likes better. Unfortunately, whenever you ask someone why one set of ideas is better than another, you very quickly find yourself running in a circle, trapped in a tautology, exhausted by a conversation that never quite takes place. 'My ideas are better because they correspond to my values. My values are better because they correspond to my ideas.'
If you have ever tried to have an in-depth conversation with a Québécois/e who labels her/himself as “pure laine” and “de souche” then you have already faced the passionate closure of this tautology. The brick wall pictured on the PQ’s propaganda brochure is a good representation of what you will be hitting your head against if you attempt to challenge the project with logic or rationality. The PQ wants the world to believe that Quebec’s ethonocentrism is an impenetrable fortress.
The wall of cinder blocks in the PQ brochure is also an ironically apt representation of the Bloc Québécois. Decades ago when Mordecai Richler described PQ policies as “non-violent ethnic cleansing,” I thought the description was exaggerated and inappropriate. This week the expression seems stickily appropriate. It is universally acknowledged that the Quebec government has a very poor record both in terms of attracting immigrants and employing minorities. The charter is going to make that record a lot worse, and it is very hard to imagine that this result is unintended.
Maria Mourani’s exclusion from the Bloc caucus and her eventual resignation from the party have made her the icon of “ethnic cleansing.” It was astounding to hear her Bloc colleagues (on Le Club des ex) claim that she was excluded from the caucus because she had described the PQ policy as ethnic nationalism, when television viewers who heard her comments only moments before could recognize that that is not what she said. They excluded her without even paying attention to what she actually said. She had made it clear that she wanted to fight against the misperception of her constituents that the charter was proof of ethnic nationalism. Now we know that, no matter what the context, the words “ethnic nationalism” cannot be spoken. I wonder why?
The whole idea of a charter of values is not just an absurdity, it is a perfidious absurdity. If it was really intended to represent what we all really believe and value, shouldn’t “loving your mother" be included as one of our common values? What about compassion, fairness and kindness? Shouldn’t the charter indicate that we are all against bullying? And against fascism? And pedophilia? And exploitation of the young and the elderly? The point is there are lots of values that we hold in common. If we already hold them in common, all the less reason that we need laws to spell them out. If those values already exist in law, all the less reason that we need a special charter of values to repeat them.
This realization brings us to a whole new level of the hypocrisy and misrepresentation with which we are dealing. The project is not to create a “Charte des valeurs.” This phrase is just part of the sales pitch which the PQ is spreading in the media in order to sell the idea to its ethnocentric base. The proposals are supposedly beneficial additions to the existing CHARTE DES DROITS ET LIBERTÉS DE LA PERSONNE to encourage greater equality, clarity, tolerance and harmony. The very serious question which I have yet to see debated or even mentioned is: What changes is the government planning to make to the existing charter? More precisely, what “rights and liberties” are they planning to remove?
If you take a look at the existing CHARTE DES DROITS ET LIBERTÉS DE LA PERSONNE it becomes patently obvious that the PQ’s inclusion of sexual equality in the new proposal is redundant, purely an exercise in political gamesmanship. The inclusion of sexual equality in the "Charte des valeurs" simply means that everyone who wishes to oppose it is forced to say, “I agree with part of the charter; the part concerning sexual equality” before they can go on to register their objections to what the charter proposal is really all about. For the same reason, the PQ has already rejected the repeated suggestion that the sexual equality and religious neutrality proposals be dealt with separately.
Here is what the CHARTE DES DROITS ET LIBERTÉS DE LA PERSONNE already says:
Toute personne a droit à la reconnaissance et à l'exercice, en pleine égalité, des droits et libertés de la personne, sans distinction, exclusion ou préférence fondée sur la race, la couleur, le sexe, la grossesse, l'orientation sexuelle, l'état civil, l'âge sauf dans la mesure prévue par la loi, la religion, les convictions politiques, la langue, l'origine ethnique ou nationale, la condition sociale, le handicap ou l'utilisation d'un moyen pour pallier ce handicap.
Toute personne est titulaire des libertés fondamentales telles la liberté de conscience, la liberté de religion, la liberté d'opinion, la liberté d'expression, la liberté de réunion pacifique et la liberté d'association.
In other words, “égalité hommes-femmes” is already covered in the existing Charter, and what is really being proposed is the removal of rights and liberties related to religion and ethnic origin, and the amending and limiting of rights to liberty of religion and expression.
When we come to consider the proposals for religious neutrality, the hypocrisy and perfidy of the PQ prove even more profound. While head scarves, mandalas and turbans might be banned, the loopholes which will allow Catholic symbols not only to exist, but to proliferate and become more visible have already been written into the proposal. The cross which will be allowed to remain in the National Assembly is the leading and most infamous example, but it is just one example of how the same loophole will be allowed to operate across Quebec. Not only will numerous levels of government and institutions be allowed to write their own rules, but any religious symbol which is considered part of Quebec’s history and culture can also remain, ensuring that Quebec will remain dominantly and visibly Christian and Catholic to the detriment of all other religions and cultures.
Of all the disturbing suggestions in the PQ proposal, the most disturbing for me is that the government will control history. The PQ plans to protect religion (we can safely assume Catholicism) on the grounds that it is part of Quebec history and heritage (and in the name of “preserving culture” we can assume that Quebec history and heritage will end the day the Charter of values becomes law).
La religion a occupé un rôle fondamental dans l’histoire du Québec ; nous devons protéger cet héritage.
So much for religious neutrality. But what makes the proposition even worse is that a PQ government seems comfortable with the idea that they will determine how history gets written and taught. Presumably, from now on, Quebec history will be all about white Catholics, and the artifacts and symbols will be maintained to ensure that the story gets told and taught that way.
Riche de son histoire, le Québec est fier de son patrimoine qui explique d’où nous venons et ce que nous sommes aujourd’hui. Il importe de le transmettre aux jeunes générations et à toute personne venue d’ailleurs, afin qu’ils enrichissent à leur tour cet héritage.
La religion a occupé un rôle fondamental dans l’histoire du Québec ; nous devons protéger cet héritage
This idea that history can be controlled by government and rewritten to suit policy is the kind of thinking we used to criticize the old Soviet Union and 1950s China and various totalitarian regimes for. How did this mode of thinking suddenly become acceptable in Quebec? Is there anyone literate enough in the Parti Québécois to remember Winston, the hero of Orwell’s 1984? Winston’s job was to rewrite history for the government.
This week Barry Wilson delivered a Postscript editorial on CTV television lambasting the Charter project as ethnic nationalism, but he eventually commented in an offhanded tone that he does "not believe this will ever be voted on in this legislature because the PQ does not want it to pass." The cartoonist Aislen also claimed the legislation would never pass, and journalist Jennifer Ditchburn implied the same on CBC television. Have any of these people done the math? Of the 125 seats in the national assembly, 2 are currently vacant. The PQ and the CAQ together currently hold 72 of the Assembly’s 123 seats. By my count that is more than 58% and more than enough to pass this legislation.
According to the party press release, CAQ (the Coalition Avenir Québec) is not only in favour of most of the Charter’s provisions, CAQ representatives claim: “We’ve debated enough in Québec. It’s time to take action.” With the CAQ’s urgent support most of the provisions of the charter of values are bound to pass. The CAQ’s official position is that
Regarding religious accommodations, the time has come to take action and to legislate. All positions regarding the issue have been largely presented and discussed more than once in the past few years.
The Coalition Avenir Québec considers the government’s idea of holding new public consultations on the issue before tabling a new bill totally useless. A consultation will follow the tabling of a bill anyway.
The CAQ’s urgency remains as mysterious as the imagined problems which the PQ is supposedly solving with the charter. As if to prove that their ethnocentrism and determination to legislate Quebec values are even stronger than the PQ’s, the CAQ has already announced that
. . . if the courts were to repeatedly strike down or endanger the measures taken by the government of Québec in order to preserve the fundamental values of Québec as defined by the National Assembly, Quebecers would not be helpless. In such circumstances, a Coalition Avenir Québec would not hesitate to resort to the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that François Legault is an old-time PQ sovereigntist with the same ethnocentric baggage and attitudes. But the important point here is that the PQ and CAQ have the votes to pass this legislation, or am I missing something? Why is the English-language media so certain that this legislation will not be passed?
I truly empathize with Maria Mourani because like her I have allowed myself to maintain an open mind toward the PQ and the sovereignty movement in general, believing that they could be open, inclusive, socially responsible and democratic. Right now I feel that my open-mindedness has been simply foolish. I have been conned by the humanistic faces that the PQ have occasionally been able to show to the public. However, now I realize that behind every René Lévesque there is a lobsters-in-the-pot Jacques Parizeau ready to blame the “ethnic vote” for the referendum loss and a Bernard Landry ready to accost an innocent hispanic bystander with the same accusation. We might want to think of the PQ as being like Lucien Bouchard in his 1996 address to the Anglophone community saying:
If we're looking for shared values between Quebecers, a number of them come immediately to mind: parliamentary democracy, equality, freedom of expression, pluralism, a taste for each other's culture, a somewhat greater sense of fun than most of our neighbors.
No, none of these “values” made it into the charter, unless you count a redundant, hypocritical use of “equality.” In fact, we can now recognize that the charter is designed to resist these values and ensure that they do not take hold in Quebec. Behind the humanist face of Lucien Bouchard there will always be the PQ reality of an Yves Michaud chastising Montreal’s Jewish community for failing to vote in favour of Quebec’s independence, and of course Drainville’s Herouxville-style Charter, and Premier Pauline Marois still pushing the PQ’s failed enthnocentric slogan, “Nous sommes un peuple.” Et les autres? Well now we know; they are expected to remain invisible.