Quebec Values Charter Looks for a Showdown

Populist move meant to stoke sovereigntists’ ire, say opposition leaders
September 18, 2013 Updated: September 18, 2013

OTTAWA—Quebec’s separatist government has managed to bring all federal political parties together while taking out one of its own allies in the House of Commons.

Premier Pauline Marois’s controversial values charter, which would restrict the display of religious symbols in Quebec, has been seen as a populist though divisive move that capitalizes on specific intolerances in La Belle Province.

While the bill is clearly illegal according to many, its goal could simply be to stir reaction and prompt the kind of federal-provincial showdown that feeds sovereigntists’ angst in Quebec, says Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

In proposing the so-called charter, Marois has managed to create a unified opposition from the Tories, Grits, and NDP, though the parties differ on the best way to deal with it.

While the feds want to wait and see if it ever becomes law—something Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday is increasingly unlikely—the NDP are prepared to fund legal challenges. Trudeau is also proposing a wait-and-see approach, but said he would leave legal challenges to people in Quebec. 

The charter has already cost the sovereigntist movement one of its own after the Bloc Quebecois ejected from caucus one of its five MPs, Maria Mourani, a Catholic who opposed the charter.

The Parti Quebecois’ plan would prevent Quebecers from wearing religious symbols, including large crosses, turbins, or head coverings, while giving or receiving public services. Public servants would also be subject to a ban on wearing overt religious symbols. Mourani regularly wears a cross.

Mourani had joined other sovereigntists who claimed the proposed charter would drive minorities to seek federal protection for their rights—a move that would undermine the separatist movement’s efforts to sideline federal influence in Quebec.

‘Divisive and discriminatory’

While the Bloc had previously supported long-held policy that only public servants in positions of authority, such as police officers, should be prohibited from wearing religious symbols, that changed last week. 

The Tories and NDP waited to take a position on the matter when it was first announced and specifics were unknown. Trudeau, however, quickly denounced it. 

In an announcement Wednesday, retired general Andrew Leslie said Trudeau’s immediate position on the Quebec charter made it clear he wanted to be onside with the Grits. 

“The only national leader who stood up and articulated my views in a clear and convincing fashion was Justin, who said that the proposed draft charter is not what Canadians want or need. It’s divisive and discriminatory. At that moment, I knew I was a member of his team.”

Leslie, former Commander of the Army, will co-chair an Advisory Council on International Affairs with MP Marc Garneau. He did not rule out a future run for office to get a seat as an MP.

The Bloc’s leader, Daneil Paille, who does not currently have a seat in the House of Commons, blasted Mulcair for saying the NDP would fund legal challenges against the charter.

In a statement released only in French, Paille said Mulcair raised the spectre of legal action to prevent Quebecers from pursuing the plan.

“The NDP leader has not shown that it respects the right of the Quebec nation to choose freely its model of society,” said Paille. 

He accused Mulcair of preferring “a government of judges” over elected members of Quebec’s provincial legislature. 

“The NDP are clear that Quebecers must accept without grumbling Canadian multiculturalism and the Charter that have been imposed on them by force,” he said.

Trudeau declined to comment specifically on Mulcair’s plan, but has said the charter is simple electioneering.

“I am comforted by the strong opposition coming from all neighbourhoods,” he said.

Charter Illegal: Mulcair

Mulcair said his own experience in Quebec’s justice department tells him that lawyers there will have already informed Marois that the proposal is “patently illegal.”

Reading the proposal reveals it includes ambiguous restrictions, such as wearing a crucifix that is not too large, he noted.

“So you know that some of this was not written by attorneys who were looking at having legal provisions that could be enforced,” he said.

“They were written by political operatives within premier Marois’ office or inside the office of the minister responsible to provoke exactly the type of very strong reaction that it’s been provoking.”

When asked about a poll that found a majority of Quebecers support the charter, Mulcair said: “I am in politics to defend principles, the principles contained in the Charter of Rights. All elected officials have an obligation to defend the rights of minorities.” 

Mulcair said if he relied on polls, he never would have run in his Outremont riding where he stole a Liberal stronghold and became the NDP’s first Quebec MP. 

The bill reflects a larger problem of systemic discrimination against minorities in the province, he said, pointing to several studies over 30 years that revealed such discrimination.

“Here, it will be a discrimination mandated by the Quebec government. This is unacceptable in our case and we will stand up and denounce it for what it is—discrimination.”