Quebec's charter of values, revisited

Politicians debating whether police can wear hijabs, graphics explaining the difference between a burka and a burkini, arguments over immigration levels — it all feels so 2013.

As the identity debate heats up again, what did scholars learn about the last time we went down this road?

Bernard Drainville, the PQ minister who tabled the charter of values in 2013, during legislative hearings. The charter died on the order paper before the 2014 election. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Politicians debating whether police can wear hijabs, graphics explaining the difference between a burka and a burkini, arguments over immigration levels — it all feels so 2013.

The sense of déjà vu recalls the fractious debate over Bill 60, better known as the "charter of values," which the Parti Québécois tabled in the fall of that year.

Its most controversial proposal was banning ostentatious religious symbols — such as the hijab — in public institutions. Bill 60 died on the order paper when the 2014 election was called, calming tensions in the province. 

Now, three years later, the province appears headed again towards an episode of identity politics.

In recent weeks, the Coalition Avenir Québec has taken stands against the burkini, against police officers wearing the hijab and proposed a 20 per cent cut in the number of immigrants the province lets in each year.

The governing Liberals, as well as one prominent editorial cartoonist, have lampooned party leader François Legault by comparing him to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

A now infamous image the Quebec government released in 2013 when the charter was first tabled. (The Associated Press)
So far, the debate hasn't reached the fever pitch that accompanied the proposed secular charter. 

Other than sovereignty, few social issues have galvanized opinion in the province as the did the charter. It is no surprise, then, that scholars have used it as a prism through which to understand the dynamics of Quebec society. 

Academics, though, work at a slower pace than pundits. Their studies can go through multiple drafts and the peer-review process can last months.

But several in-depth studies about the charter of values have recently begun appearing in academic journals.

With Quebec again intent on discussing the contours of secularism, it may be worth looking at what was learned from its previous outing with identity politics.

After several French cities sought to ban the burkini, politicians in Quebec began debating the issue as well. A French court struck down the municipal burkini bans. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

Well-being of young adults

Among the most recent studies to appear is an examination of the charter debate on the psychological well-being of young adults in Quebec

The article, which was published in July on the website of the journal Transcultural Psychiatry, found the debate negatively affected a group of students at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Out of a sample of 441 students, the researchers found almost a third reported having experienced or witnessed discrimination after the charter was released. That number was higher for immigrants and members of minority groups.

"Our study results thus bring to the fore what can be described as the "ordinary" violence ... that members of minority groups face on a daily basis," the authors write.

Comments on the Facebook page of Les Janette were described by two researchers as embodying a "radical right." (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Facebook radicalism

These findings are reinforced, to some extent, by researchers who linked the charter debate with a rise in right-wing radicalism on Facebook. 

Frédérick Nadeau and Denise Helly analyzed the content of 10 Facebook pages that emerged in support of the charter, notably "Les Janette" (after television figure and charter supporter Janette Bertrand) 

"Islam is the most cited and the most hated religion on the Facebook pages we studied," they write in an article published earlier this year in Canadian Ethnic Studies

"This creates a general climate of mistrust where even the most moderate Muslim is suspected of having a hidden agenda."

Nadeau and Helly use the term "radical right" to describe the content of these pages, which they carefully distinguish from the "extreme right."

Pro-charter debate on Facebook may be anti-egalitarian, they say, but it still supported Quebec's political institutions, such as the National Assembly. 

A woman holds a crucifix during a 2014 gathering in Montreal to oppose the charter. Several protests were held both for, and against, the proposed laws. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Who supported the charter?

Perhaps the most surprising finding about the charter debate is who supported the legislation. 

Charles Tessier and Éric Montigny began their study, published in French Politics, with the hypothesis that throughout the debate, support for the charter was strongest among older, less educated and more rural demographics.

But after examining monthly polling data during the debate they found, in fact, that the charter enjoyed significant support from young, university-educated Montrealers when it was initially tabled in the fall of 2013.

Their study doesn't address why that support eventually faded — by 2014 over-55s were its biggest proponents — but Tessier speculates a shift in rhetoric may be the cause. 

At first the charter was talked about in terms of secularism. Only later did it become about immigration as well. 

"I think the young-educated demographic lost interest in the charter as the debated shifted along more immigrant lines," he said during a recent interview. 

That provides some indication of who the CAQ is hoping to appeal to as they now attempt to resurrect the identity debate. 

"If they want to attract young, educated people, focusing on immigration wouldn't seem to be the best strategy," Tessier said. 


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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