A major controversy has erupted in Quebec as a result of Premier Pauline Marois' proposed "Charter of Quebec Values," which aim to prohibit public sector employees from wearing or displaying any overt religious symbols. The proposed bill would ban the donning, for example, of a hijab or turban by government workers but, at the same time, permit the continued display of the large crucifix hanging in the province's legislature.
Quebec's ethnic communities were swift and unanimous in their condemnation but, surprisingly, two former influential separatist premiers and leaders of Marois' party, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, also turned thumbs down on the initiative. Arguing that they were in favor of the removal of religious symbols only from those in positions of authority, such as judges and police officers, they implied that the National Assembly's crucifix would have to go as well.
The official line from Canada's federal government, which was delivered by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, was: "If it's determined that a prospective law violates the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled, we will defend those rights vigorously."
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also reacted negatively to the plan: "There's no expiry date on human rights. It's not a popularity contest, this for us is completely unacceptable and the NDP will be standing up foursquare against this project."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was no less forthcoming: "Madame [Pauline] Marois does not speak for all Quebecers when she puts forward an idea of forcing people to choose between their work and their religion, to set out an idea of second-class Quebecers who would not qualify to work in public institutions because of their religion".
The debate has turned bitter as today's growing immigrant population of Quebec, once predominantly European in nature, is overwhelmingly derived from the French-speaking countries of Northwest Africa and from Asia. How can Ms. Marois believe that with two out of every three newcomers to the province arriving from the former French colonies of the Maghreb and from Asia, from lands, that is, with vastly different religious beliefs from her own, that she can outlaw the display of the symbols of their faith?
If the Parti Quebecois is desirous of a more "homogeneous" community, perhaps it should attempt to address the issue by refocusing its immigration policies. For the current state of affairs in Southern Europe, where the economies of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal have been devastated by the ongoing crisis, may present a golden opportunity for the government to invite willing, educated immigrants with cultures more similar to that of traditional Quebecers, provide them with intensive French language instruction and encourage them to settle here. An equally attractive pool of potential candidates with backgrounds closely resembling that of the Roman-Catholic Quebecois can be found in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the ex-Communist States of Central and Eastern Europe.
The reality, however, is that current statistics depict migration from Europe to Quebec in free fall, dropping to 16.6 percent of the total in 2010 and plummeting to a recent historic low of 15.3 percent in 2011. Instead of the province attempting to enforce short-sighted legislation that can do little else but foment division and anger among its citizens, it should be putting its efforts into creating and promoting a harmonious, inclusive society that is representative of the mosaic that is Quebec today.