[The following editorial will appear in the October issue of The Journal. Since there has been a significant amount of media coverage concerning the Quebec Charter of Values, we have decided to release this now in advance of the publication of the paper. ]
Page six of this issue of the Journal features an inspiring story of hope, tolerance and understanding. Changing the World highlights Ralph Singh, a Sikh leader, educator and pioneer in interfaith work who has written a book called Stories to Light Our Way: Journey to the World of Good.
The book is intended to help children appreciate what different faith traditions hold in common. “Prejudice starts young,” Singh says, but he goes on to say that if children can learn stories from one another’s traditions, they will understand that they “share values.”
The same word “values” also appeared in recent news reports that emanated from the office of the premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois, but there is an enormous gulf between her definition and that of Singh’s. According to media reports, the Parti Québécois leader and her minority government are planning a Charter of Quebec Values, which paradoxically will ban public employees from wearing Sikh, Jewish and Muslim headwear, and Christians from wearing visible crucifixes, in the workplace. Some have suggested that Christians may wear crosses, as long as these aren’t too big! The mind boggles imagining inspectors needing to measure the length and width of this sacred symbol.
To add to the confusion and lunacy of this proposal, the premier has made an exception for the crucifix that hangs in the legislature, explaining that it is a “cultural artifact from Quebec’s past.” No wonder Charles Taylor, the co-chair of the 2007 provincial government commission on how far society should go to accommodate requests for religious and cultural differences, suggested that the justification of leaving religious symbols on buildings while denying individuals the right to wear them is reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s Russia
As a Christian committed to learning and working with my interfaith sisters and brothers, I take great exception to the proposed charter. No doubt one can look into Quebec’s past and see the negative and abusive control that the Roman Catholic Church exerted over people’s lives especially in health care and education, prior to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s. We need to learn from the past and not replicate the intolerance and bigotry of our forebears.
A charter of values needs to hold as its foundational principle respect for people’s beliefs. Canada, including Quebec, is a society that has flourished through tolerance and understanding. Implanting religious intolerance into such a document is divisive and exclusionary, creating second-class citizens, who the Quebec government is now proposing, must give up who they are so they can look like everybody else.
How does telling a Jewish person that in the workplace he cannot wear a yarmulke-or a Muslim that headscarves are forbidden or a Sikh that turbans and kirpans are not allowed-further the kind of country that we strive to be? Will clerical collars as a visible symbol be next?
In 1987, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, stood at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall (also known as the Iron Curtain) and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to “tear down this wall.” The challenge was issued to increase freedom tolerance and understanding in the Eastern Bloc.
Premier Marois, through this charter, is attempting to do the opposite: to build walls that will not serve the people of Quebec in any fashion that is consistent with those values that we hold as sacred for all Canadians. People have died in wars for these values and many others have travelled through hardship, distress and persecution to come to this country because of its belief in justice and liberty.
To the Quebec premier, I say just say non-no to intolerance, no to discrimination, and no to prejudice.
Build a charter of values that reflects the principles that I trust the people of Quebec truly believe in.
Archdeacon Paul Feheley is interim managing editor of the Anglican Journal.