Saturday, August 18, 2012

Questions of Balance and Reasonable Accommodation with Religious Cultural Symbols

By Gary Berg-Cross

Our neighbors to the north have an election coming up. In Quebec the word “secular” has been thrown into the political debate by the Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois.

The background to this is interesting and regional and immigrant issues. To be sure no part of Canada is entirely free from prejudice toward minorities. But in the providence of Quebec the issue is often a tad more politically charged, especially in elections, as what groups stand for comes into discussion. The province of Quebec’s culture (and religion) is different from the rest of Canada and has a linguistic minority status within the country. So leaders have to carefully discuss toleration since they ask for toleration from the bulk of the country.

But now there is a 3rd group to consider - the so called New Canadians, such as Muslims. Quebecers are now being asked to consider how they protect their historically distinct identity, while respecting the rights and identities of new minorities. Where is the balance?
It’s a bit of a challenge with PQ provincial candidate Pauline Marois taking a bit of a 2 track approach:
“Quebecers are open and proud to welcome people from all over the world. However, we insist on conserving our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”

Front and center are Muslims and how they exhibit their identity, but also Jews, other religious groups and perhaps down the road non-believers. But for now the issue has been public employees wearing religious symbols such as women wearing hijabs, or men wearing turbans or skull caps. There’s less “tradition” for all of that so what accommodation can be reached?

Under PQ’s newly proposed Quebec Charter of Secularism, the government would seek what they called a a balance between protecting the province’s historical values (think French and Catholicism) and allowing for “different culture to interact”. Pauline Marois said it this way in an interview:

“I think it is important for the government to be neutral. There are many people from different religions. That is respect for all these religions to say to these people when you will work for the government, you will be neutral.”

Neutral? To some this is an implicit message to the New Canadians that it is better to quietly adhere to the provincial culture and values. It is a the type of message that non-theists understand coming from a religious majority.

Under the proposed charter, civil servants would be barred from wearing any (well most) religious symbols. This of course includes the controversial hijab. I’m not sure how they would handle a flying spaghetti monster pin, but Marois says she wouldn’t object to people wearing less obvious symbols like a cross around their neck. The opposition has made much of an exception to the secular stance that would be made for the crucifix. This includes the one in the National Assembly. The PQ party considers the crucifix in the blue chamber of the National Assembly a symbol of Quebec’s heritage. This religious symbol above the Assembly speaker’s podium has already created a rift among PQ members. One assembly candidate, Djemila Benhabib, announced on Tuesday that for consistency she would fight to have the crucifix removed. Djemila is in the PQ, but is an immigrant from Algeria, and takes a real state-religion separation stance - show no preference for any religion.

The mayor of Saguenay in Quebec (not a PQ member) , Jean Tremblay, waded into the debate during a radio interview recently showing a bit of the underlying thinking and emotions.

“What’s outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who’s come here from Algeria, and we can’t even pronounce her name,”

OK so the other side is not tolerant either.

It’s all this mix of religious cultural identity that is so hard to move. The proposed secular charter is certainly not a sure step forward. It is an uncomfortable and very partial accommodation which offers an opportunity of Quebecers to look at the issues. It has a lot of people talking and exchanging ideas online. It confronts the question of how, what seems (or seemed) a modern, free and open society, like Canadian handles diversity of thought and behavior. Where is the balance in toleration when you say people cannot wear outwardly religious symbols while working in the public system? It is hard to say, since there seem to be hidden motives here hiding under a secular-neutral label. It is easier to accept the part of the law that would also prohibit citizen’s from refusing to be served by a member of the opposite sex. That seems like more of an accommodation and progress.

The worry is that some parts of the legislation could firm up subtle division in province Quebec as it struggles to assimilate the new immigrant Canadians. Perhaps we will see how this plays out.

Image Credits:


National Assembly Crucifix:

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