Protesting the charter in Quebec. Matias Garabedian/Flikr
Islamophobia Remains in Canada
In March 2014, the Parti Québécois (PQ) minority government in Quebec called for an election to be held on April 7, two years earlier than needed, in hope of securing a majority government. The PQ promised to pass Bill 60 — otherwise known as the Quebec Charter of Values — if this hope was fulfilled. The Charter was an explicit attempt to limit the freedom of all religious minorities in Quebec, with a particular focus on Muslims.
The PQ was decimated on April 7 and did not attain the majority government it hoped for. It did not even remain in power. Instead, the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) emerged with a strong majority government.
Charter opponents broke out in mass celebration, claiming that Quebec proved itself to be above entertaining blatantly xenophobic populism. They predicted that the Charter would no longer be a threat. Yet the morning after the election, an ax with the message “Exterminate all Muslims” written on it was thrown through the window of an Islamic center in Montreal. Any reasonable hope of the PQ’s defeat ushering in a post-racist era in Quebec were smashed with this ax. The Charter and its xenophobic mission will not die with the PQ. Nor will the damage done to Muslims over the past six months be forgotten.
A Charter of xenophobic values
The history of Quebec, like most of the Western world, is filled with Islamophobia. As such, it would be misleading to say the PQ introduced Islamophobia to Quebec. Yet it would also be a mistake to deny the fact that the PQ capitalized on, and enflamed, existing Islamophobic sentiment during its time in power.
The most prevalent avenue through which the PQ perpetuated Islamophobia was the Charter of Values. PQ National Assembly Minister Bernard Drainville officially proposed the Charter on September 10, 2013. It was later tabled as Bill 60 in the Quebec legislature.
The Charter sought to regulate interactions between state officials and the public through five proposals, one of which garnered a great deal of attention. This proposal sought to “limit the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols” for state personnel. In practice, this meant that state employees (such as police, judges, public daycare workers, teachers, hospital workers and municipal personnel, among others) would have been prevented from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in the workplace. Banned religious symbols would have included hijabs, burqas, niqabs, turbans, kippas and “large” Orthodox crosses. Additionally, in the midst of the campaign, Drainville declared that the PQ would also seek to make it illegal for university students to wear a burqa or niqab in class.
The Charter of Values would have had troubling consequences if passed. Freedom of religious expression would have been severely limited since many religious symbols identified by the Charter cannot simply be taken off during work hours and put back on later. This would have led to members of religious minorities being forced out of jobs, while others would have been excluded from receiving a post-secondary education.
It is clear that the Charter was a racist bill barely disguised under the shroud of supposed secularism. As such, it is no surprise that many right-wing Islamophobic xenophobes actively supported it. What is shocking, however, is the general lack of attention from across the political spectrum toward the Charter’s possible consequences. Many claimed to oppose the Charter but did not take its consequences seriously.
As such, the first step toward reconciliation with religious minorities targeted by the Charter must be admitting the mistakes made over the last few months.
The Charter as a PQ ploy
Many opponents of the Charter argue that it was the PQ’s creation alone, with little to no support from the average Quebecer. This argument is useful to some extent, especially in light of the PQ’s election loss. For example, it serves as a helpful reminder that ruling political parties do not represent all whom they rule over. This argument has also gained some legitimacy due to the wide range of protests against the Charter, including hundreds of people marching in the streets, major hospitals declaring that they would oppose the Charter if it passed, and professors donning the targeted religious symbols during lectures.
Regardless, attempts to reduce the Charter’s support base to PQ officials alone are too optimistic. The PQ introduced the Charter and was its strongest supporter. Yet it is by no means the only political party in Quebec that has encouraged targeting religious minorities. The Charter received support from all other major political parties in Quebec.
For example, the Coalition Avenir Québec, which finished third in the election, officially opposed the current manifestation of the Charter. Yet it is in favor of allowing the bans included in the Charter to apply to government employees in positions with a high degree of authority, such as judges and police officers. The PLQ continue to support a version of the Charter that would ban burqas and niqabs in the workplace. Even the most progressive parties, such as Québec solidaire, have offered their own version of the Charter.
Additionally, perceiving the PQ’s demise as a vote against the Charter is incorrect. Over 90% of the vote went toward parties supporting some version of the Charter. Also, data illustrates that support for the PQ dropped when it began explicitly and aggressively discussing separatism. Pauline Marois, who resigned as PQ leader following the election, confirmed this, claiming she would not take questions on separatism again in the future. As such, the Charter does not seem to be a major factor in the PQ’s demise.
The Charter as a distraction
Solely linking the Charter with the PQ is not the only mistake opponents have made. Many have also portrayed the Charter as the PQ’s failed attempt to increase popularity by distracting voters from their lackluster performance in office. For example, in September 2013, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, claimed that, “Madame Marois has a plan. She has an agenda. She’s trying to play divisive identity politics because it seems to be the only thing that is able to distract from the serious economic challenges that we’re facing as a province and as a country. But Quebecers and Canadians are better than that.”
This perception of the Charter is wrong for two crucial reasons. Primarily, if the Charter was intended as a populist distraction, it worked, though not exactly in the way the PQ hoped. The Charter was successful in infiltrating public discourse for months, in being perceived as popular enough to be adopted in some form by all political parties and to receive support from most of the populace, with the latest poll showing that 60% of Quebecers support a ban on religious symbols. Although the Charter did not work for the PQ, it did work at legitimizing Islamophobia on a massive scale.
Additionally, dismissing the Charter as a distraction from real issues dismisses the serious consequences it has for its targets, especially Muslim women. The very fact that such an Islamophobic bill was seriously discussed has demeaned Muslims in Quebec and helped to legitimize, or encourage, those who hold Islamophobic views. This is evident by the increase in disturbing attacks on Muslims since the Charter was introduced.
In December 2013, Sama Al-Obaidy was attacked by another woman in the Montreal metro, who attempted to pull off her hijab. Al-Obaidy claims that, “She told me my hijab and myself don’t belong in Quebec, and after a few exchanges of words, she decided to start pulling on my veil. As it started getting loose I had to eventually stop her.”
Examples of violent harassment like this are not uncommon. In November 2013, the Collectif Québécois contre l’Islamophobie claimed it had received a 300% increase in reports of Islamophobic attacks. Meanwhile, Valerie Letourneau, the spokeswoman for the Members of the Regroupement des centres de femmes du Quebec, says that since the Charter was proposed, Muslim women have increasingly been receiving “condescending looks, insults, (and) they get spat on the streets. It’s causing fear. We cannot live with this intolerance.” A February 2014 poll of Muslim women living in Sherbrooke, Quebec, reinforces this claim. The poll found that 88% of the 388 Muslim women surveyed “no longer feel safe leaving their homes.”
As such, being able to reduce the Charter to a mere political distraction comes with the privilege and security that Muslims in Quebec lack. The Charter did not need to pass for the damage to be done. The PQ’s loss also does nothing to prevent this damage in the future. Yet for many who opposed the Charter in Quebec, the increased discrimination Muslims in Quebec face is less troubling than the fact that many outside of Quebec are pointing it out.
The Charter and the Rest of Canada
Quebecers have a long history of being especially sensitive to criticism from the Rest of Canada (RoC). The discussion on the Charter has been no exception. Average Quebecers and political commentators alike have claimed that the RoC’s criticism of the Charter is hypocritical.
Darryl Leroux, a sociology professor at Saint Mary’s University, in an article in The Media Co-Op, claims that, “It is no coincidence that the Globe [and Mail] and the [National] Post [two national Canadian papers] discover a penchant for the art of anti-racist critique when it comes to Québec, but the institutional left and a bunch of my friends and colleagues in the RoC who never publicly speak out about the deeply embedded racism in Canada are suddenly flush with concern for government policy in La Belle Province.”
This sort of rhetoric has emerged from numerous sources. For example, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, an institution that promotes Francophone nationalism, dedicated a whole report to supposed Francophobia. Most of this report argued that, as journalist Steve Faguy put it, “[Anglophones] condemning perceived discrimination [in the Charter] is itself discriminatory [against Francophones.]” Similar arguments have emerged in more mainstream sites, such as the Globe and Mail and popular Quebec-based French publications. Many are undoubtedly correct. Numerous Canadian politicians and newspapers have focused on Quebec’s problems with Islamophobia while at the same time glossing over the RoC’s own perpetuation of the issue.
These claims of hypocrisy are mere truisms, however, and beg the question, “Ok, so what?” The accusations against the RoC would be far more useful if, for example, they highlighted the difficulties Muslim women face in the RoC. This would recognize the serious consequences of powerful figures and media outlets failing to denounce discrimination close to home. This has not been the case. Instead, those complaining of hypocrisy have pitted Quebec citizens as victims of powerful attacks from Francophobic Anglophones in the RoC.
This depiction is a shady one that distracts from the real issues facing those targeted by the Charter. Muslims in Quebec are being attacked, harassed and intimidated by Islamophobes. Yet the consequences of the RoC attacking Islamophobia in Quebec are essentially limited to some Quebecers, who enjoy a great deal of privilege, having their feelings hurt. While the consequences of this hypocrisy are real for Muslims outside Quebec, there’s no indication that those calling out the hypocrisy care about these Muslim women. Instead, they just point at the RoC and say, “Hey, you do it too! No fair!”
This tendency is dangerous. It diverts attention from real ongoing oppression. It gives Quebecers an excuse to not seriously oppose the Charter. It also reduces religious minorities to a tool used by powerful figures and newspapers from Quebec and the RoC to attack each other. Unfortunately, with the Charter defeated, it seems likely that more Quebecers will classify the little attention given to the Charter as an RoC construct designed to smear Quebec. This is factually wrong and increases the chance that Quebecers will not seriously pursue reconciliation with those targeted by the Charter.
A troubling future
Although we focused on problematic tendencies among the Charter’s opponents, this does not mean there is an absence of explicit racist xenophobes in Quebec who support the Charter. We only focused on self-proclaimed progressives to illustrate how few Quebecers care about Islamophobia. This apathy is not restricted to the political right. If the mistakes of the past six months are not taken seriously, it is likely that future Islamophobia will not be either.
The threat of Islamophobia has not passed, nor will any learning merely serve the purpose of combating Islamophobia in other forms arising in the future. Islamophobia has gone nowhere. It is not a threat; it is a reality. And at this moment, with the defeat of the PQ, Quebec will go down one of two paths.
Quebec may take the past few months seriously and acknowledge how deeply entrenched Islamophobia is within society. Then, attempts might be made to reach out to those affected and condemn those who have supported or ignored the issue. Alternatively, Quebec may see the PQ’s defeat as a sign that all is well. The past few months may be ignored, and complaints from those targeted may fall on deaf ears.
The first path is ideal as it properly recognizes the PQ’s defeat as a fortunate first step in the long-term fight against Islamophobia. Yet thus far, it appears as though many in Quebec are already heading down the second path, wearing blinders and blissfully ignoring reality, all the while repeating: “Quebec is better than the Charter, the election proved it!” These baseless, pats on the back must be challenged. The future of religious minorities in Quebec depends on it.