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Thousands march in Montreal against proposed 'Charter of Quebec Values'

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Several tens of thousands of people marched in Montreal on Saturday, Sept. 14 to voice their opposition to the Quebec government's newly proposed Charter of Quebec Values. It was a powerful expression of opposition to the divisiveness and prejudices that the Parti Québécois government's charter proposal will inflame among the Quebec population if it is not defeated.

The charter is purported to affirm the rights and values of Quebec society, including separation of church and state in the affairs of government. This, it is said, will “unite” the Quebec population like never before. The charter would become part of existing human rights legislation. But it contains a highly divisive and controversial measure that would prohibit employees in government and public services from wearing religious symbols or dress while at work, including such items as headscarves and turbans.

The Montreal demonstration was organized by a coalition of groups called the Collectif québécois contre l'islamophobie (CQCI--Quebec Collective Against Islamaphobia). The march included such groups as the Conseil musalman de Montréal (Muslim Council of Montreal), the Centre communautaire des femmes sud-asiatiques (South Asian Women's Community Centre), the Idle No More Indigenous sovereignty movement, the Sikh population and sections of the Jewish population. (See a large photo collection of the action by Montreal photographer Darren Ell.)

One participant told this writer by phone that he estimated there were 20,000 people on the march. That included many Montreal residents of North African origin. The same figure is also cited in several news reports. March organizers said 40,000 people took part.

Demonstrators brought coucoussières (couscous cooking pots) to the march as noisemakers. The clanging of pots and pans (casseroles) was a prominent feature of the student protests that rocked Montreal and the province of Quebec during the spring and summer of 2012. Students fought a proposed hike in post-secondary tuition fees and a harsh police and judicial repression unleashed by the Liberal Party government in power at the time. The PQ rode to power last September (as a minority government) thanks in part to the rejection of the Quebec population of the Liberal attacks on students and their courageous resistance.

One sign on the march summed up what progressive Quebec opinion is saying about the proposed charter: 'Our values include tolerance.' A Canadian Press report showed a photo of two girls on the march wearing the Quebec flag as a hijab (head-covering scarf).

Mainstream Jewish organizations in Montreal did not participate in the march because it was held on Yom Kippur day and because they say they will not associate with the CQI, the main organizer.

Opponents of the proposed charter deem it racist and exclusive, claiming it is unfairly targeting immigrants and particularly Muslims.

Many prominent supporters of Quebec nationalism and sovereignty have spoken out against the reactionary proposals in the charter, including former member of Parliament Jean Dorion, former student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Quebec solidaire party co-leader Françoise David. A lengthy and detailed online petition against the charter (in French and English), titled ‘For an inclusive Quebec’, has so far gathered more than 12,000 signatures from a cross-section of Quebec society, including those who support the goal of an independent Quebec.

The charter has split Quebec society down the middle. A Léger poll conducted on Sept. 13 and 14 shows opposition to the measure at 42 per cent and support at 43 per cent. The pro-independence Bloc québécois party in the federal Parliament has expelled one of its five elected members, popular Montreal MP Maria Mourani for her opposition. She is of Lebanese origin. The expulsion has heightened concern in the ranks of the Quebec sovereignty movement.

Quebec's largest public sector union, the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec (SFPQ—provincial government employees) has come out in support of the charter. But most unions are hesitating to express a position. They say they will take some time to study the measure. That's the position of the FTQ, the largest union federation in the province with 600,000 members, the CSN and the CSQ. The latter is the largest union of teachers in the province with 130,000 teacher-members.

The third largest union of teachers, the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE, 32,000 members) has expressed "great reserve." In a Sept 10 statement, it says, "secularism must apply to institutions (of the state) rather than to individuals because the wearing of religious symbols is not equivalent to proselytizing."

The leftist Québec solidaire says it supports the PQ measure insofar as it promotes secularism but it opposes the ban on wearing items of religious symbolism in state workplaces. It says the measure is particularly discriminatory towards women because it appears directed at the wearing of the hijab, especially in schools.

The party also notes the discrepancy in the charter proposal concerning religious symbols that allows up to five-years of exemptions to colleges and post-secondary and healthcare institutions but not primary schools or daycares.  

Discrepancies are abundant with the measure. The most blatant is the continued presence of a Christian cross prominently mounted inside the Quebec National Assembly. There are thousands of crosses mounted in public places throughout the province, not least the huge, metal, illuminated cross that sits on top of the small mountain (Mont Royal) that towers over downtown Montreal. These are all 'grandfathered' by the charter, deemed to be an untouchable part of Quebec's cultural heritage.

Leaders of the three large parties in the federal Parliament have spoken against the proposal. Also opposed is Charles Taylor, co-author of the 2008 report commissioned by the then-Quebec government proposing measures for "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants, national minorities and people of religious faith in the institutions of the Quebec state and society.

A new poll by Forum Research shows the federal Liberal Party benefitting the most from reaction to the charter. Thirty six per cent of those polled would vote Liberal in a federal election while 23 per cent would vote NDP and 22 per cent Bloc Quebecois. The NDP scored its 2011 federal electoral breakthrough in Quebec (57 seats out of 75) with 43 per cent of the vote.

The Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party of Quebec) is opposed to the charter. Its leader says the measure will pass "over my dead body." The rightist Coalition avenir du Québec, the third party in the National Assembly, supports it on condition that its restrictions apply only to state employees in positions of authority (teachers, police, prison guards, etc.). CAQ support will be crucial to eventual passage in the Quebec National Assembly, should the proposal even reach that far.

Coincidentally, last week, the government of France announced a proposed 'charter of secularism' to be posted in all educational institutions in the country. It is a largely symbolic measure that will state the rules and regulations of present law in the country.

In 2004, the French government banned the wearing of "ostentatious religious symbols" in state-run schools. The reactionary measure largely targeted the wearing of the hijab by girls and women. In 2010, the government banned the wearing of face coverings in public, including those required by religious custom.

The integration of immigrants and other ethnic minorities into Quebec society and the issue of what constitutes the Quebec nation have been intensely debated in Quebec in recent decades. The debate is complicated by the long-standing use and abuse by pro-federalists in Canada and Quebec of the immigrant population in the province and of federal 'multiculturalism' policies to attack and undermine Quebec nationalism. Thus, liberal values upholding the secularism of the state (neutrality in religious matters) and freedom to worship and believe have become intertwined with the politics of Quebec’s historic struggle to free itself from the oppression of the Canadian state.

For comprehensive analysis of political, constitutional and civil rights issues in Quebec, see the articles posted by Ottawa author and writer Richard Fidler to his blog, ‘Life On The Left’, including these:

Roger Annis lives in Vancouver. He lived in Montreal for ten years. This article is slightly revissed from its original posting on Rabble.

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