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McGill University opposes Values Charter, claims affects faculty & recruitment

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At its tri-annual debriefing to Quebec's National Assembly committee on Culture and Education on Tuesday evening, Dec. 3, 2013 in Quebec City, McGill University's Principal Suzanne Fortier indicated that the upcoming Bill 60, the Charter of Quebec Values is already affecting the university's faculty and student recruitment. McGill was the first university in Quebec to speak out against the charter's restrictions on religious freedoms.

During her report Principal Fortier was asked about the initial impact the charter has had on the university. Fortier honestly answered that a growing number of professors at the university have taken offense to the charter and have expressed that they are considering leaving their teaching posts because of the new law. McGill's principal claimed; "The talent in our university could work anywhere." The proposed law has also been deterring student recruitment. Fortier told the committee; "We're hearing already people wondering if they should find employment elsewhere, or students in recruitment wondering whether they should come to Quebec…. People are worried."

McGill's Executive principal Anthony Masi also expressed concern about the growing number of professors considering leaving their post because of the Carter. Masi stated to the committee; "We saw this year a larger number of professors who've indicated to their deans the possibility that they are thinking of leaving."

McGill has faced some challenges this past year, they have gone down in the global university rankings, being unseated as the top university from Canada. Additionally as Principal Fortier also stated to the National assembly committee the university is strapped for funding. The university's credit rating has been dropped and McGill has had to cut their 2014 budget by 43.5 million dollars. As Fortier explained to the committee; "The walls of McGill are cracking, and that's as true in the real sense as in the figurative one." New government funding will only begin in 2015.

On more a positive note, the university just installed new Principal and vice-chancellor Suzanne Fortier in the beginning of November; she began her job as McGill's head at the start of the academic year. The university has also maintained their ranking from Macleans Magazine as Canada's top university. The Principal concluded at the committee's review that the university is a "tour de force" and that "the competition to attract top talent is fierce, and it is an international one. What is at stake is Québec's capacity to remain in the ranks of innovative societies."

Members of the Parti-Quebecois are skeptical about McGill's statements and opposition to the charter thinking they are over doing it, believing like Bill 101, the French language bill it would not affect the university in the long run. PQ member Daniel Breton commented; "I can't stop myself from being surprised that in a intellectual university environment, there's unanimity."

The next day, Wednesday, Dec. 4, the PQ's Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, who has been responsible for the Values Charter, rebuked McGill's claims about the charter's early affects on the university. Drainville dismissed McGill as using "scare" and "fear" campaigns, stating; "Scare campaigns have been tried in the past."

The PQ minister then brought up reactions to Bill 101 40 years ago when it was first proposed; "You know the same thing was said about Bill 101 40 years ago, and did it hurt McGill? Did Bill 101 hurt McGill? Did Bill 101 undermine the world-class status of McGill University? I don't think so." Continuing he explained, that subsequently Bill 101 did not affect McGill at all; "Bill 101 was adopted. There was all kind of apocalyptic discourse around Bill 101 and it didn't stop McGill from staying the world-class university that it's been." Concluding Drainville stated; "Fear campaigns do not work anymore. I think we should have a more positive discourse around the charter."

Despite the opposition the charter Drainville said it has to apply to universities since they are public institutions, and the law will be apply to all public and government run institutions. As the Minister explained; "For us, it's a question of coherence. Universities are public institutions and the secularism we propose applies to all public institutions. So it must apply to universities. I understand they have reservations - to say the least. So I invite them to come and submit them to the parliamentary commission." The Parliamentary commission will begin on January 14, 2014 in Quebec City.

The provinces' universities have until Dec. 20 to submit their formal position to the government in the form of a brief in order to be to voice their opinions at the commission hearings. So far of the province's major universities, McGill University opposes the charter and some of Montreal's French language universities l'Université de Montréal and most recently The Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) are lean tpwards opposing it. Additionally one other French university in the province, l'Université de Sherbrooke formally took a position against the charter.

Montreal's other major English language university; Concordia has not taken a formal position, their Senate will meet on Friday Dec. 6 and then its board of governors meets the following week to decide where they formally stand. Concordia's media relations director Chris Mota told the press; "The president is getting a lot of feedback on the charter. Based on all of that, and the meetings, our position will soon be determined." However, the student population has been vocally against the charter, their protests and planned protests were enough to scare Minister Drainville, who cancelled a speaking engagement on Nov. 28 at the university citing "security concerns."

McGill has been one of the most vocally opposed to the charter since the formal announcement in September; it was also the first university to take a position against the proposed bill. Even before the university administration took a position, professors and student groups were speaking out against the charter, which prevents religious symbols. Political Science professor Rex Brynen's statement to the McGill Daily in the middle of September summarized the opinion of most of McGill's faculty; "I am vehemently opposed to it, as I think is the overwhelming majority of the McGill community."

On Sept. 17 Principal Fortier issued a statement that the university supports their employees who wear religious symbols; "The proposal to prohibit our professors and staff from wearing visible religious symbols runs contrary to our principles. We are committed to promoting a climate of tolerance on campus which will allow all of students, faculty and staff to flourish in their pursuits." While the Board of Governors issued a similar statement reinforcing that position on Sept. 26 which read; “The right of religious choice and cultural diversity are essential values for the McGill community.”

McGill reiterated their position after the PQ formally tabled Bill 60, Olivier Marcil, vice-principal of external relations stated; "The McGill community considers respect for religious choice and the plurality of cultures to be essential principles of the university. The content of the bill introduced today by the Quebec government contains the provision prohibiting public sector employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, and therefore does not lead in the direction we had hoped."

At the end of November McGill University's senate and board of governors formally voted that the university opposes elements of the bill particularly the elements that prevents public employees from wearing religious symbols and clothing. The Senate approved the motion on Nov. 20 and then the Board of Governors unanimously voted in favor of it a week later on Nov. 28. The Senate and Board's motion read; "Be it resolved that while the McGill Senate supports the secular spirit of Bill 60, it strongly objects to the restrictions on the right to wear religious symbols, as described in the draft legislation, which run contrary to the University's mission and values."

The Parti-Quebecois came into power in November 2012 with a minority government, and formally unveiled their Charter of Quebec Values bill meant to "entrench the religious neutrality of the state" on Sept. 10, although they announced in May 2013 their intention to create this new law as an ammendment to Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Then on Nov. 7, the PQ Government tabled the Charter as Bill 60 in the National Assembly.

The law bans all "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols for all religions, head coverings, and face veils, including; "crucifixes, hijabs, nikabs, burkas, turbans and kippahs." This applies to public service and government employees, those working in government, public hospitals, police, social services, daycares, schools, cegeps and universities, but is exempt for elected officials. The law does permit small jewelry with religious symbols.

The Quebec government argues that for a neutral state to be truly neutral it has to have its employees look the same. The PQ government set up a website for the charter which states "the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel... would reflect the state's neutrality."

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.

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