The legislation, introduced this morning, to enact the Parti Quebecois’ charter of Quebec values drives the province deeper into a bitter debate that pits family members and colleagues against each other, and threatens to trigger another wave of emigration that could again damage the provincial economy. 

It will likely, however, also provide at least short-term electoral benefit for the PQ, which is why Premier Pauline Marois is pressing forward against stiff opposition. 

Perhaps the most revealing survey question on this issue came from a Leger poll in late September. It showed that 46 per cent of all Quebec voters consider immigration to be a threat to “the heritage of Quebec society,” a figure that rises to 57 per cent in rural areas where the PQ is strong.   

The result was also starkly split along language lines, with 52 per cent of francophones feeling immigration is a threat, compared to 65 per cent of non-francophones who feel it is is not. 

Those who see immigration as a threat are more likely to favour government action to counter it, and so roughly the same language split is seen in support for the PQ proposals to ban “ostentatious” religious clothing such as Muslim headscarves and Sikh turbans for public servants in schools, hospitals and government offices. 

Francophone Quebec voters have long felt their culture is threatened by the sea of English surrounding them in North America. Now, it appears they also feel threatened by immigrants among them. 

Francoise David

Opposition to the charter proposals has come even from committed sovereigntists, including Francoise David, the leader of the ultra-separatist Quebec Solidaire party. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Opposition to the proposals has come even from committed sovereigntists, including Francoise David, the leader of the ultra-separatist Quebec Solidaire party, Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani, and even former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard. None of them has been able to dissuade Marois from this course. 

The proposed charter serves as a perfect wedge issue for the PQ. Its strategists believe it will solidify the party’s image as the true defender of “the heritage” of francophone Quebec, and draw these voters away from the competition, especially the upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec.  

They believe that CAQ leader Francois Legault has shown himself to be out of step with his mostly rural party membership by refusing outright endorsement of the charter, and by offering suggestions to limit its effects. 

Meanwhile, when the new Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard, says the charter would be adopted “over his dead body,” the PQ see that as an opportunity to portray the Liberals as servants of the English and ethnic minorities, a favourite recurring theme.

'More burkas than mini-skirts'

This issue was studied in depth by the Quebec commission on reasonable accommodation in 2008, co-chaired by two of Quebec’s leading intellectuals -- sovereigntist Gerard Bouchard and federalist Charles Taylor. Both have denounced the government’s proposals. 

Bouchard said the proposal would never survive court challenges under the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights. 

When Premier Marois suggested her new charter was required to avoid the “multicultural” approach of Britain, which she claims has resulted in people “bashing each other over the head," Charles Taylor called her an “ignoramus.”  

Tempers are running high, even among thoughtful, usually soft-spoken philosophers. 

The government proposals have found strong support on hot-line shows and in the tabloid press, especially the outlets owned by Quebec industrialist and media magnate Pierre-Karl Peladeau, who also serves as an adviser to Marois, and even participates in some cabinet meetings. Peladeau’s wife Julie Snyder, a star on his TVA network,  has played a key role in organizing a pro-charter feminist group, and a pro-charter street demonstration.   

Richard Martineau, a hot-line host on TVA and  leading columnist for Peladeau’s Journal de Montreal and Journal de Quebec newspapers, claimed that on a trip to England this past summer he saw “more burkas than mini-skirts” in the streets of London, echoing Marois’s alarmist view of Britain.  

PQ government supporters are much more comfortable with what they see across the channel in France, where there is strong support for a similar hard-line approach to compel the integration of immigrants.

Exodus talk

In the English media, opinion runs overwhelmingly against the new charter, and there has been a seemingly endless parade of people claiming they will leave the province if the charter becomes law, echoing the exoduses that followed the first election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, and the 1980 and 1995 sovereignty referendums.  

This charter debate is giving many non-francophones painful flashbacks to those referendum traumas.  Many say they will never be able to feel at home in a province where the government and the majority of their fellow citizens see them as a threat.  

Quebec Charter of Values protest

Demonstrators have staged a number of protests against Quebec's proposed Values Charter, including this one in Montreal on Sept. 14. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

If this new bill becomes law -- no guarantee in the current minority situation -- it will likely be instantly challenged under the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights.  

The PQ cited an outside legal opinion saying its proposal was constitutional, but LaPresse newspaper reported that the government’s own internal lawyers told them it was not. The government-appointed Human Rights Commission has also come out against the proposed law. 

The PQ Government has a step-by-step strategy here. If the proposed new law is found to be an abrogation of the Quebec Charter of Rights, the government could simply amend that charter with a majority vote of the National Assembly.  If it was found to be an abrogation of the Canadian Charter of Rights, the government could invoke the “notwithstanding clause” inserted into the 1982 Constitution to over-ride the Canadian charter. 

PQ strategists dream of rekindling the sovereigntist fervour that followed the most famous use of the notwithstanding clause, when then premier Robert Bourassa used it to override a 1988 Canadian Supreme Court ruling against parts of Bill 101, the Quebec language law.

Pauline Marois has already said that she would be “proud” to invoke that notwithstanding clause to pave the way for her new law. 

PQ strategists dream of rekindling the sovereigntist fervour that followed the most famous use of the notwithstanding clause, when then premier Robert Bourassa used it to override a 1988 Canadian Supreme Court ruling against parts of Bill 101, the Quebec language law. 

That action also triggered the death of the Meech Lake Accord and a huge increase in support for Quebec sovereignty. 

Former PQ premier Bernard Landry has called upon the government to soften its proposals by not applying the new law to health-care institutions, something that would allow a compromise deal along the lines proposed by the CAQ.  Many PQ strategists are against that approach, however, because it would deprive them of the wedge issue they want to use against the CAQ at election time. 

In early discussions about the reach of the charter, long-time PQ strategist and spin-master Jean-Francois Lisée, now the minister of international trade, said: “We are not dummies. Nobody will be at the doors of Jewish hospitals taking kippahs off of doctors’ heads. That’s not the case.”

Although there is a possible temporary exemption for medical institutions such as the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, if this law is passed, the day Lisée​ described is coming. It's only a matter of when.