Even as the upcoming provincial election in Quebec appears to be slipping away from the Parti Québécois, the PQ’s Quebec Charter of Values continues to fan the flames of controversy within and beyond the borders of la belle province. Most of the discussion that I’ve seen, at least, has focussed like a laser on the specific provision that would ban “conspicuous” religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs and (improbable) large crucifices from public sector workplaces. I have to admit that I’m amazed by the passions that seem to have been stirred up on both sides of this issue. I don’t think any other topic has been so hotly debated on this very blog, and intemperate statements about the dire consequences of either purging or not purging various forms of silly headgear abound.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not to adopt the Charter is one that will have to be decided in Quebec through normal democratic mechanisms. Those of us outside the province very properly don’t get a vote and really have no business demanding one outcome or the other, but we’re perfectly entitled to hold opinions. Mine, for what it’s worth, is that no red-blooded secular-minded Québécois has any good reason to be too bothered by the sight of a hijab behind the desk in some government office. The Achilles heel of the Charter is the difficulty of pointing to – or even imagining, with any degree of versimilitude – situations in which the silly headgear ban would make much of a positive difference to anyone. Watching Charter proponents try to do this, in fact, can be an exercise in high comedy. The nadir of this particular brand of absurdity may have been a little medical fantasy dreamed up by one Yves Gauthier:
Asked by Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville about the requirement public-sector workers not wear such face-covering garments as the niqab or burka, Mr. Gauthier’s thoughts turned to his doctor’s office.
The retiree noted there are a lot of women in the medical profession these days.
“Even if we are open and all that, it is not always clear, because having your prostate checked by a digital rectal exam is a little disorienting, at least the first time,” he said.
“I could not see myself, on top of that, dealing with a veiled doctor, with a burka or chador … So yes, especially as a matter of principle, I totally agree that services should be given with the face uncovered.”
This scenario deserves its own video along the lines of the proctological one that an American group called Generation Opportunity released last year to warn the unsuspecting public about the terrible dangers of government involvement in health care:
In the PQ version of this video, Uncle Sam would be replaced by a menacing figure in a burka or chador. “Spread your buttocks, infidel,” she would hiss as she snapped her latex glove into place. “As I probe your accursed rectum I will describe the manifold torments that await you in the next world!”
Charter proponents are on slightly firmer ground when they argue that a conspicuous religious symbol could be perceived as hostile and alienating by some people who need access to government services, perhaps because of a negative prior experience with the religion in question. The fact remains, however, that a turban or hijab isn’t going to leap across the room and strangle anyone. It’s just a piece of cloth, and the person behind the counter is just a public servant with a job to do. If he or she does start ranting about infidels and torments in the next world, then by all means complain, but it’s unrealistic to assume that a bit of religious headgear is necessarily indicative of such sentiments. It’s equally unrealistic to imagine that the government is endorsing a particular religion merely by allowing its adherents to wear their yarmulkes or (improbable) giant crucifices to the office. I’m not a fan of restrictive dress codes in general, unless there’s some compelling practical reason for them, and I don’t see why most public sector workers shouldn’t be able to wear pretty much whatever they want as long as they adequately fulfill their duties.
But if Charter supporters have a tendency to go over the top when asked what problems the Charter would actually solve, many Charter opponents go in for sky-is-falling rhetoric that seems at least as ludicrous. Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post, suggests that the Charter will “in effect, purge the civil service of religious minorities” and wraps up by describing pursuit of the kind of secularization embodied in the Charter as an “unspeakable purpose”. Unspeakable! From what I’ve seen of his work, Coyne is far from a careless writer, and it seems prudent to assume that he means exactly what he says. To be fair, his main target appears to be the controversial “notwithstanding clause” of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which a future PQ government might need to invoke (quite reasonably, in my view) to override judicial opposition to the Quebec Charter of Values, but the fact remains that asking people to remove their silly headgear during office hours amounts to a de facto “purge” of only the most inflexible believers.
In a similar vein, the Toronto Star‘s Haroon Siddiqui solemnly tells us that the PQ’s “diktat on Muslim women’s attire makes [PQ leader Pauline] Marois a female ayatollah”. An ayatollah of either sex, I expect, could do a lot better than the Quebec Charter of Values if invited to devise some repressive measures to govern details of people’s lives. Siddiqui also calls the PQ’s approach “dangerous populist demagoguery that knows no bounds of ideology – or logic”. No bounds!
The hyperbole and hyperventilation is amusing, but the fact that it’s appearing under respectable bylines in leading newspapers reveals something unhinged, something rather broken, in our culture. Any heterogeneous society has to strike some kind of balance between accommodating the peculiarities of religious minorities and establishing boundaries to keep them from unduly alarming, inconveniencing or even harming their fellow citizens. Now and then, the balance may need adjusting, and the Quebec Charter of Values is just a small proposed nudge of the dial in the direction of establishing tighter boundaries. I don’t think it’s necessary, but I don’t see how anyone can write with a straight face that it’s “unspeakable” or worthy of an “ayatollah”. Charter or no Charter, Quebec will remain more or less the beautiful, culturally dynamic and interesting place that it is today. If modest measures like the ones in the Charter can elicit such pearl-clutching in high places, the well-intentioned sensitivity to the needs of minorities that is such a salient feature of Canadian public life is well on its way to becoming a morbid, paralysing obsession.