Bernard Drainville, the minister of Democratic Institutions in the Parti québécois government, announced May 22 that the Charte de la laïcité, or Charter of Secularism, promised by his party in last year’s general election, would become a Charte des valeurs québécoises, or Charter of Quebec values, and be tabled as a government bill this fall. What does this shift in the government’s rhetoric mean, and how should the left react?
This new maneuver, aimed at expanding the identity front in the hope of gaining (electoral) ground, is complex and risky. We should take advantage of it to make some headway in favour of pluralism and human rights, and put an end once and for all to the proposed Charte de la laïcité, a project that is at best unnecessary and potentially a threat to our freedoms; and we should reaffirm as “Quebec values” a respect for difference, intercultural convergence, and solidarity in opposition to discrimination and oppression.
As the report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission clearly demonstrated, there is no crisis in Quebec in the relations between different communities of belief, except in the heads of the xenophobes, the speeches of the right-wing demagogues who fuel this xenophobia in order to make political capital, and the dishonest coverage of some sensationalistic media. When incidents are blown up in the media, it is because some people make bad decisions based on ignorance, prejudice, xenophobia or by overlooking certain rights. We saw this recently in the decision of the Quebec Soccer Federation to exclude young Sikhs wearing turbans. There was no problem until a few individuals decided to create one out of nothing.
The solution to these minor problems is not to create a new law with an assimilationist and anti-religious definition of secularism (contrary to the spirit and the history of this idea, which originated on the left) and over and above the rights of individuals and minorities. Rather, the task is to commit ourselves to firm defense of the rights of religious minorities in the face of discrimination and exclusion, and in a spirit of integration. And to improve the training of those administering public services in order to prevent the kinds of incidents that our sensationalistic media and national demagogues enjoy so much. A policy on secularism and accommodation, under the existing laws, notably the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would be entirely sufficient.
Is secularism an overriding value?
What does the PQ mean by “Quebec values”? Are these values invented in Quebec before being disseminated elsewhere? Are they values found only in Quebec? Are they values that have always been shared by the people of Quebec, from New France to our day? We need to be clear. The debate has to address the values that Quebec decides to adopt collectively and democratically as a society, for now and for the future.
What are these values? Can we identify some that are more fundamental and more essential than others? To what extent can we accept that not everyone in Quebec shares the same values?
This could be an interesting debate, although hard to translate into laws and regulations. But in fact the government’s purpose is not to contribute to the debate but rather to develop a new strategy to counter the decline in their popular support, a logical consequence of their neoliberal governance. Like other Western governments on the ropes in the recent past (for example, Sarkozy’s in France), the Marois regime hopes to rally support around xenophobic panic disguised as a fight for secularism and/or national identity.
This new positioning is both a retreat and an offensive. A retreat, in that it dilutes the issue of secularism as understood by the ethnic nationalists and the anticlerical militants (two distinct groups that sometimes overlap). Their demand for a charter of secularism seeks to set aside the policy of intercultural integration adopted by Quebec in the years when Gérald Godin was in the government  and replacing it with a new policy of assimilation asking minorities to make themselves invisible. This assimilative policy logically leads to justifying discrimination and marginalization for persons who refuse to dissolve into the model determined by the majority.
The strategic retreat toward “values” in general is both a concession to those who reject secularism out of attachment for Quebec’s Catholic heritage (like the mayor of Saguenay) and a logical consequence of the identitarian slippage in the very concept of secularism, which is increasingly instrumentalized for the purpose of marginalizing minorities. This is contrary to the meaning of secularism in its historic sense. 
But raising the question of “Quebec values” in general opens the door to recognition of more important values than secularism. Secularism should be understood as a means of achieving equality, freedom and solidarity: equality among the members of society independently of their spiritual and philosophical beliefs; freedom for everyone to believe or not to believe, and to build their own vision of the world; and solidarity with minorities in the realms of philosophy (e.g. atheists) or religion (Jews, Muslims, etc.) in the face of persecution or mere contempt on the part of the majority. Thus, if we were to re-examine the secular project in light of more fundamental values, we could fight its identitarian slippage and reinforce an intercultural and evolutive vision of the Quebec nation.
The PQ leaders are promoting a charter of values as a means of shoring up their nationalist credentials, which have been undermined by their inability to revive the struggle for Quebec sovereignty and their servility to the petroleum and mining multinationals, and more generally to the interests of transnational capital as manifested in their support to the Canadian free trade deal now being negotiated with Europe. Since the fight against the powerful is no longer on their agenda, why not embark on an operation that will further oppress people who are already marginalized? They didn’t hesitate to do that to the social assistance recipients, so why not go after the “ethnics” as well?
One of the problems with this approach is that its premise — that immigrants, particularly those of the Muslim religion, have values that differ appreciably from those of the French-Canadian majority — is an outright myth.  In fact, the values professed by the adherents of various minority religions are surprisingly similar to those of the average Catholic. Not to mention the people who come to Quebec precisely in order to escape Conservative and authoritarian regimes, or the members of minority groups that have long been established in our communities. Mixing the issue of religious affiliation and secularism with the issue of values is therefore at best breaking down an open door and at worst an operation that will fuel prejudice against minorities.
Prohibiting religious signs is not secularism
I know from my experience in Québec solidaire as well as elsewhere that the heart of the debate, its most important practical application, will once again concern the wearing of signs of religious (or cultural) adherence by workers in the public services. And that’s just for starters …
Let’s say, first, that there is no legal tradition that protects us from knowing another’s religion. That’s an invention of French anticlerical and/or Islamophobic philosophers.  Simply being informed of another person’s religion is in no way an infringement of my own freedom to believe or not to believe, or an attack against the secular nature of public institutions. And the idea that we can only know the religion of others if they are wearing some visible indication of it makes no sense.
If we recognized this right, how far would we have to go to enforce it? To get an idea, we need only think of the recent French moves to ban the headscarf for mothers accompanying kids on school outings, or for women working in the private sector, etc.
What if a man of Jamaican origin has dreadlocks, like Bob Marley? I might conclude that he adheres to the Rasta religion. So if he applied for a job as a teacher, I could require that he cut his hair. By doing so, I would prevent him from displaying his identification with his slave and African ancestors and their struggles. Would that decision be progressive?
Also, our thinking should be based on an analysis of the context. There is no systemic discrimination against atheists or Christians in our society. But there is indeed against the Arabs, the Muslims, the Africans, etc.  Banning personal religious insignia in general may seem fair at first, but in reality it means targeting minority religions, and the effect is to fuel prejudice.
Furthermore, a law banning the wearing of religious signs would probably be overthrown by the courts on the basis of the Quebec or Canadian charters of human rights. And some writers who favour such a ban recognize the problem. That’s where the bad idea of a Charte de la laïcité comes from. It’s a way to put so-called secular principles (actually anti-religious principles, which is quite different) above human rights in order to immunize them from potential court decisions. The last thing to do in this situation would be to pressure the PQ to return the discussion toward a Charte de la laïcité. On the contrary, we should take advantage of the semantic fuzziness introduced by the invocation of “values” to reverse this trend and argue for a simple policy based on existing rights.
If the PQ wants to return to this question this fall, it will be in the context of its inability to renew the strategy of the independentist movement and the decline in support for the government because of its neoliberal policies. What, then, is the political content of their project concerning “Quebec values”? It is an identitarian retreat to the NOUS of a Jacques Parizeau, the NOUS of the “secularized,”  the NOUS who don’t wear bizarre or sexist clothing, etc. aimed at THEM and their customs, their habits, their beliefs. If Québec solidaire (and the left in general) do not come out in strong opposition to this populist right-wing slippage worthy of a Mario Dumont, we will collectively be accomplices of a tendency to caricature minorities that will be used to justify any and all discrimination. This would be unworthy of an internationalist left opposed to all forms of oppression.
Benoit Renaud is an activist with Quebec solidaire.
This article was originally published by in French on Le blogueur solidaire, and has been slightly revised by the author for the English translation by Richard Fidler.
1 Godin was Minister of Cultural Communities and Immigration in the early 1980s.
2 In France, in a period when Europe was still experiencing democratic revolutions, the goal was to defend equal rights for all citizens, including Protestants, Jews or agnostics, in the face of domination by the Catholic Church of the majority.
3 Paul Eid, “La ferveur religieuse et les demandes d’accommodement religieux, une comparaison intergroupe,” in Eid, Bosset, Milot & Legro (ed.), Appartenances religieuses, Appartenance citoyenne, un équilibre en tension (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009).
4 I am thinking here of Catherine Kintzler and Henri Pena-Ruiz, in particular.
6 An individual cannot personify laïcité; it is a neutral terrain, not a specific vision of the world. Laïcisation is an evolution of institutions, secularization affects civil society.