Quebec's values charter sends politicians scrambling

CBC's James Fitz-Morris looks at the political gamesmanship behind the federal and Quebec governments' approaches in the Quebec charter debate.

Political gamesmanship and the Quebec religious symbols debate

It's an odd sight to see Jason Kenney ill at ease in front of the media.

But there he stood Tuesday afternoon, quietly reading from a folded piece of paper in his hand. He was memorizing the typed-out lines as his colleague, Denis Lebel, the minister responsible for Quebec, read the French version out loud.

Both ministers were sent out to give the federal government's reaction to Quebec's proposed "charter of values." If passed, the amended charter would bar public servants, bureaucrats, teachers, hospital workers, daycare workers, etc. from wearing "conspicuous religious symbols."

The move most affects Muslim women who wear any sort of headdress, Sikh men who wear the turban and/or the kirpan, Jewish men who wear the kippah, and possibly even Hindu women with a bindi.

Christians would be prohibited from wearing visible and "overly large" crucifixes around their neck, but smaller ones are permitted.

As for crucifixes mounted in public parks and the walls of Quebec's public buildings? "The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage," according to Bernard Drainville, Quebec's minister of democratic institutions, the man charged with navigating the new charter through the national assembly.

Some values more valuable?

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois responds to reporters' questions over a proposed charter of Quebec values before attending a cabinet meeting in Quebec City, Sept. 11. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

So, it would appear under the proposed charter of Quebec values, some are more valuable than others.

That suggests a possible violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its protection of freedom of religion, which would obligate Ottawa to fight it tooth and nail.

That, of course, could all be part of the plan.

Is the Parti Québécois government attempting to set itself up for a political win-win?

On the first front: If it is successful in entrenching secularism and religious neutrality in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, it will set Quebec on a new course quite different from the other provinces. That could make it easier down the road to argue Quebec is so different from the rest of Canada that it should separate.

If Ottawa were to interfere and block Quebec from proceeding, or defeat the proposed changes in court later, Quebec could argue the rest of Canada is incompatible with what Quebecers want and, therefore, push for separation.

In either scenario, polls seem to indicate the Parti Québécois's notions of "equality and harmony" are quite popular in large swaths of Quebec outside of Montreal, improving the PQ minority government’s chances in the next election.

Kenney unusually restrained, rehearsed

It's enough to make any Conservatives also hoping to win seats federally in those very parts of Quebec to take a few deep breaths and choose their words carefully before stepping into the brewing storm.

Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney listens to a reporter's question while he and Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs Denis Lebel hold copies of their prepared statements on the proposed charter of Quebec values on Sept. 10. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

After his quiet contemplation, the official line from 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,"

That restrained, rehearsed message seems at odds with what one might expect from Canada's long-serving multiculturalism minister, particularly one as adept at conversing with the media as Kenney.

The man almost singularly responsible for the Conservatives’ newfound success with Canada's many cultural communities surely has strong feelings when those same citizens are now being told to choose between their faith or a job.

That same day, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair seemed genuinely upset the PQ is proceeding with its 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 chided the PQ for playing "divisive identity politics." However, he admits the message may find a foothold among Quebecers who feel their culture and identity is constantly under siege in English-speaking North America.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau tells reporters Quebec's charter proposal aims 'to set out an idea of second-class Quebecers who would not qualify to work in public institutions because of their religion,' on Sept. 10 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"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," Trudeau said.

Three different federal parties all vying for seats in Quebec, three different ways of condemning the "charter of values," but with a common thread: don’t do anything that might help the PQ — with this project or its larger one of sovereignty.

Political gamesmanship

The PQ may get its votes; Ottawa may avoid being lured into triggering another constitutional crisis, but what will be the legacy of this political gamesmanship?

While the proposal focuses on public sector workers, Drainville made it clear the goal is to reach into every corner of Quebec society: "We think private businesses will, essentially, guide themselves from now on with the guidelines that we are giving them, that we are putting into the charter."

In a province where Quebecers are encouraged to snitch on one another if they believe language laws have been violated, what will happen to the small shop owner who decided to hire that young, dynamic woman who happens to wear a scarf on her head?

On the federal level, they are all hoping it goes the way of "Pastagate."