My dear American neighbours: Neil Macdonald

Most Americans would probably have a hard time understanding how a Western democracy, which Quebec is, could even consider a law banning head scarves and turbans. Surely it would be unconstitutional. Well, things are different in Canada.

Your constitution is a bit different from ours

A demonstrator is framed by a Canadian flag as she protests against Quebec's proposed charter of values in Montreal on Sept. 14. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

My dear American neighbours,

It may just be politeness, but several of you have used pauses in discussions about what in heaven’s name is going on in Syria to ask me what in heaven’s name is going on in Canada.

Well, yes. My country has been in the news a lot here lately. To put it mildly, we aren’t used to this sort of attention.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois holds the proposed Quebec charter of values at the national assembly in Quebec City on Sept. 10. It might not be constitutional, but that might not matter in the land of the 'notwithstanding clause.' (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Let’s start with Quebec, where the provincial government wants to ban the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols – most notably headscarves and turbans – on all government employees, which in Canada includes university professors and doctors.

It’s a huge story back home, and it actually rated a piece in the New York Times last week.

Most of you probably have a hard time understanding how a Western democracy, which Quebec is, could even consider a law like that. Surely it would be unconstitutional.

Well, the short answer is that Canada doesn’t really have a constitution, in the American sense of the word.

Your constitution is supreme here; it trumps all other law, and explicitly guarantees both freedom of expression and the free exercise of religion.

Canada’s Constitution contains the same guarantees, but with a big difference: In Canada, governments can ignore it.

Notwithstanding clause

Our Constitution contains something called the “notwithstanding clause,” which allows Quebec, or any other province, to exempt any law. 

And some of them, including Quebec, have done just that.  

Where governments are concerned, our Constitution is more of a voluntary guide. Brian Mulroney, when he was our prime minister, said it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. 

As to why Quebec would want to ban religious expression in the first place, think Arizona and Oklahoma and a handful of your more conservative states.

The Republicans run those states, and they have a few things in common with the Parti Québécois, the nationalists who run Quebec at the moment.

Neither the Republicans nor the Parti Québécois are very popular among ethnic groups and new immigrants. Both parties are alarmed at the erosion of their bases, both of which historically comprise white, traditional-minded Christians. And both parties are trying to rally those bases.

In Oklahoma, three years ago, Republicans championed the “Save our State” amendment to state law, which was designed to combat the rather dubious menace of Shariah, or Muslim religious law, in America. 

Just as the authors of the proposed Quebec law are claiming now, Republicans in Oklahoma and other states clothed their laws in language about protecting the state from any and all religious influences.

And when the Oklahoma measure was put to state voters in the 2010 election, they approved of it overwhelmingly.

This being America, though, none of that made any difference in court. 

Federal judges quickly ruled it unconstitutional. The measure, one judge wrote, deliberately targeted Muslims.

Back to Quebec, though. The government’s rhetoric there is even more tortuous.

Quebec’s equivalent of Oklahoma’s state legislature toils under a prominent crucifix, which the Parti Québécois has no intention of removing, on the grounds that crucifixes and crosses are part of Quebec’s cultural history.

Furthermore, the party that has with great gusto gone about changing street and city names that smack of English (that’s another story, let’s stick with this one), presides over a province where thousands of streets, and often entire towns, are named for this or that Catholic saint. Crosses on public property are common, including the giant illuminated steel one that dominates the skyline of Montreal.  

None of which Quebec’s government, in its determination to purge religious symbols, intends to change. Cultural history, and all that.Conservative Republicans here in the U.S., of course, passionately want to maintain Christian iconography on public property here, but that lands them in court, too.

Because as everyone here learns in school, that same First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that protects religious personal expression, also forbids the state to promote one religion over the other, or, for that matter, any religion at all.

Certainly, a big crucifix wouldn’t last very long in the U.S. Congress.

In the pipeline

But Quebec isn’t the only story in the news here. Canada’s proposed oil pipeline across America is making headlines constantly, too.

Canadians once portrayed themselves, somewhat hypocritically, as terribly green and environmentally concerned, at least compared to you Americans. 

Nowadays, one of our government’s biggest priorities is extending a pipeline that will transport heavy, viscous bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands, which you Americans still annoyingly call “tarsands,” to refineries on your Gulf Coast.

Republicans love the idea. But Democrats (except for pipeline-building union members) don’t, and their environmentalist constituency despises it, because of the much greater carbon emissions involved in extracting the tar-like oil from those sands. Huge protests are planned across America on Saturday.

President Obama, meanwhile, has stalled. He says he won’t approve the pipeline if it “significantly exacerbates” carbon emissions. 

The thing is, his own State Department has already said it won’t. Canada is going to extract and sell that oil. Somebody’ll buy it. Killing the pipeline, says the State Department, won’t make any difference.

Let’s face it, my friends: we’re all big energy hogs. The average household here consumes enough energy to power a Third World village. Same thing in Canada. All this sudden altruism is a little much, no?

About our ‘free’ health care

Last item: Our health-care system. I’ll keep this one short. 

Congressional Republicans are obsessed with repealing Obama’s health-care law, which they say is Canadian-style socialism. They’ve tried to repeal it more than 40 times.  

Democrats and boosters of the new law cite Canada, too, but kindly.

A lot of them want universal free health care, which they say exists in Canada, where they think money doesn’t get you to the front of the line.

Well, it may once have been that way, but cash is increasingly king back home, just like it is here. 

Friends and acquaintances back home are buying into private schemes that ensure regular, prompt care. My elderly relatives live in fear of losing their regular doctor, because, they say, a new one is hard to find without connections or money.

Yes, health care is still cheaper and more universal in Canada, but it’s pretty clear where the system is going.

Anyway, my dear friends, I hope all this helps. And on behalf of my fellow Canadians, thanks for your interest.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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