The Canadian province of Quebec is poised to introduce controversial legislation on Thursday that would ban “ostentatious” religious symbols, despite ongoing debate and criticism that the law would violate human rights.
The Charter of Quebec Values, tabled by the minority government Parti Quebecois, wants to “contribute to integration and social cohesion” and establish the French-speaking province’s secularism.
“If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image,” the government minister in charge, Bernard Drainville, told CBC News.
To achieve its goals, the charter would prevent government employees from wearing obvious religious symbols such as turbans, headscarves, yarmulkes or large crucifixes.
It would also require anyone — a Muslim woman in hijab, for example — wearing such symbols to remove them before they could receive or deliver state services, CTV News reported.
The charter is stirring public discussion where none was needed, critics say. The Quebec Human Rights Commission has come out against the charter, saying it would ensure rights of society at the expense of the individual.
“It’s a non-answer to a non-problem,” Human Rights Commission chairman Jacques Frémont told students this week. “It’s not because you wear a veil that the state will not be secular.”
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He went on to call it “systemic discrimination” during an address at Dawson College and suggested it wouldn’t withstand legal challenges.
It is doing damage where Muslim Canadians are concerned, one group told reporters on Tuesday.
The Muslim Council of Montreal said attacks against members have skyrocketed since the charter emerged.
According to surveys, Muslims reported 117 incidents or verbal of physical abuse between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. In the previous nine months, it recorded just 25 complaints.
“Premier (Pauline) Marois’ introduction of the charter of values has unleashed an alarming number of xenophobic and Islamaphobic attacks,” council president Salam Elmenyawi said Tuesday, the Montreal Gazette reported.
There are, however, those who support the charter. The government said many Quebeckers surveyed, especially those outside metropolitan Montreal and French speakers, back the bill.
Even Celine Dion waded into the debate, saying “you have to adapt to our rules.” She called it a “delicate” issue.
“I’m not against what people wear, but if you go to the hospital, and you are in Quebec and we have embraced you and opened our country for you to live in a better world, you have to adapt to our rules,” the singer told Maclean’s magazine.
While it has created much debate and public protests, the charter appears destined for defeat; the minority government needs opposition support to pass the bill, and that doesn’t appear likely.
The government could use the not-withstanding clause, a sort of version of the presidential veto, but that would likely invite legal challenges.
Even Montreal’s new mayor, Denis Coderre, said during his recent campaign he would challenge the charter in court.
Bishops in the province also warned the charter could have unintended consequences of further marginalizing segments of the population.
“While it may be true that the state is secular, society is pluralist,” Msgr. Pierre-Andre Fournier, the head of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, told CBC. “On the spiritual and religious plan, people are free to believe or not believe ... no official religion, but no official atheism, neither.”
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