Everywhere you go, you are bound to encounter people going head-to-head or seeing eye-to-eye on the PQ government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values. The debate between those for and against it is causing a firestorm the likes of which Quebecers have not been seen since the 1995 referendum debate.
The PQ ministers responsible for the presentation of the charter – Diane De Courcy, Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, and Bernard Drainville, Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship – held a press conference on September 23 to respond to questions from media organizations representing various ethnic communities.
Before taking in any questions, the ministers went through the five major points of the proposed charter in its current form. “The main word that permeates throughout the Charter is equality,” said Drainville. “Equality for women, equality of all religions and those who chose not to be religious. The government is for everyone and on that basis it should be representative of everyone equally.”
Despite the relaxed setting, there was an undertone of combativeness. Those in favour of the charter invoked the strict secularism enforced by France. Some proponents of the charter questioned the naming of the legislation as the Charter of Quebec Values when in essence secularism and separation of church and state are a western practice.
“We want the government and public employees to represent Quebec for everyone,” responded De Courcy. “This charter reflects Quebec’s values as a secular state, however it is in the context of the province so we wanted the name to present it as such.”
During the discussion of the legislation’s mechanics, such as whether it will establish a secular enforcement agency (“It won’t,” claimed De Courcy) or where the money for the marketing will come from (“It’s an informative campaign,” said Drainville), the human element was almost forgotten.
Then Algerian-Canadian reporter Sada Al Mashren spoke of his experience growing up as a religious Muslim in Quebec. “During my time in high school I put in a request with the administration for a prayer room,” Al Mashren said. “When they refused, I didn’t get angry at the officials. I just moved my prayers outside in the field or found space off-campus.” While the ministers listened to Al Mashren intently, some charter supporters laughed at the questions he had for the government officials.
The debate is creating new divisions in Quebec society. Polls are almost evenly split, showing Charter supporters have a slight edge over opponents. Newly formed groups have begun to coalesce with the Gathering for Secularity gaining some high-profile backers, including ex-Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé. But a significant group of sovereignists are vocally opposing the proposal, starting a petition for an “inclusive” Quebec.
Outside the province, the charter is bruising Quebec’s reputation. Notably, Amnesty International says it abuses human rights. The federal government is consulting lawyers at the Department of Justice over the charter’s validity and how to proceed should the law pass.
Both sides of the debate are gearing up for a fight which will come to a head in the late fall when the proposed law will be put to a vote in the National Assembly.