The Jewish community in Quebec, Canada is standing in opposition to the Quebec government's new proposed bill the Charter of Quebec Values and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs - Quebec (CIJA-Québec) announced on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 that the Montreal Jewish community will participate in the next protest against the charter that will be held on Sunday, Sept. 29. The charter will ban all government public service employees from wearing or displaying all overt religious symbols or clothing. Other Jewish organizations including B'nai B'rith and Federation CJA have also denounced the new law against religious freedom and expression.
The protest is organized by Rassemblement des citoyens et citoyennes engage(é) pour un Québec ouvert, a "non-partisan group."According to CIJA's statement announcing the Jewish community's participation, this demonstration's purpose declares; "Our rule of law already guarantees a secular state and equality between men and women. It equally guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of religion. This is the true heritage that we must seek to protect".
The CIJA's statement also indicated that "The Jewish community is reassured to see that civil society and an increasing number of Quebecers firmly oppose the unreasonable measures set forth by the Government."
Previously on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013 the CIJA-Québec endorsed the Manifesto for an inclusive Québec that is a petition protesting the bill with 22,000 signatures. The manifesto which was drafted by "academics and professionals" is getting support from all faiths and is aimed to support "Freedom from discrimination based on religion, freedom of expression and freedom of association," which the new charter will deny Quebec citizens. The CIJA in their statement supporting the Manifesto cited the charter "run[s] contrary to the provisions enshrined by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
The manifesto declares; "the proposed Charter of Quebec Values would force minorities to choose between their conscience and their survival […] Quebec has for long been a warm and welcoming land where each person could contribute to our great social tapestry. We believe that it is through greater social diversity, not by ostracizing certain individuals that we can continue to live in harmony. Quebec identity is not built upon the rejection of the Other".
Just days before on Saturday, Sept 14, 2013, there was a huge protest against the values charter in Montreal, with over 1000 in attendance, although almost all of the community's Jews could not attend, because the demonstration was planned on Yom Kippur. The Montreal Jewish population is currently around 90,000 individuals.
Another reason Montreal Jews were not supporting the protest was opposition to the organizer, the Collectif québécois contre l'islamophobie. The CIJA made a statement about this, saying; "The Jewish community speaks for itself and will not accept to be co-opted or manipulated by the dubious objectives of some of the organizers of the demonstration, who include religious radical fundamentalists with whom the Jewish community will never make common cause,"
In contrast on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013 there was a pro-charter protest also held in Montreal which attracted a smaller crowd, but still had hundreds in attendance, demonstrating how much the charter is and will divide Quebec society. The CIJA in their opposition statement came to the same conclusion, saying; "The proposed Charter of Quebec Values, and its ban on religious symbols in the entire public and para-public sector is unjustified and unjustifiable, and will unnecessarily divide Quebecers."
Further proving this is a recent Forum Poll on multiculturalism indicates that "one-fifth of Canadians" believe the country's Jews "have too much influence" the number is much higher in Quebec where, a third, 32 percent agree. The numbers however, is a far second to the Canadians' opinions when the question is asked about the country's Muslims with 52 percent of Bloc Quebecois supporters, and 42 percent of Quebeccers believing this position.
Lorne Bozinoff, the Forum Research president says the charter is feeding off public opinion, stating; "If the Charter of Quebec Values is an example of the Parti Quebecois practising dog whistle politics in Quebec, it appears there are plenty of ears tuned to that particular frequency for the message to fall on."
The Parti-Quebecois minority government formally unveiled the bill meant to "entrench the religious neutrality of the state" on Sept. 10, although they are announced in May 2013 their intention to create this new law as an ammedment to Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. 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." However, that does not mean the government will remove all the Christian symbols that adorn many public and government locations in the province; the cross in the National Assembly, the cross atop of Mont Royal and Christmas trees during the holiday season will all remain, because of the historical significance for Quebec.
A majority of Canadian politicians and party leaders have expressed they are against Quebec's charter. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney called it "Monty Python-esque absurdity," and promised the law would be fought in federal court, as well Quebec Federal Conservative cabinet member Denis Lebel, who serves as Transport Minister opposes it. Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not believe the charter will come into law, saying; "I don't see the charter in its current form going anywhere," but reiterated Kenney's pledge to fight it in court.
Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau denounced the plan calling it "divisive identity politics." As did Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair waiting the longest to oppose it saying the NDP is "100 per cent opposed;" most critics believing it was an attempt to maintain his New Democratic Party (NDP) support in the province. While the Bloc Quebecois' only Montreal MP Maria Mourani was expelled from the caucus for "questioning the law."
On the Provincial level, Liberal Party Leader Phillippe Couillard said the charter will become law "over my dead body." The charter is also a divisive issue among Montreal's mayoral candidates in the fall municipal elections that officially kicked off campaigning on Friday Sept. 20. Even former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau and his wife former Member of the National Assembly Lisette Lapointe opposes the charter finding that it is dividing Montreal and the rest of the province.
On the opposite side Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is "very proud of the charter," saying "I think we need to set clear guidelines for how we live together."
Support for the charter is declining. When Quebec Minister of democratic institutions Bernard Drainville unveiled the charter on Sept. 10, he justified it with the Forum Research poll that showed 47 percent of Canadians support the charter and that 47 percent oppose it. While a SOM poll from the beginning of September indicated 66 percent of Quebecer support the charter. In the most recent Journal de Montréal poll from Sept. 16 indicated that 43 percent of Quebecers support the new bill with an almost an equal 42 percent in opposition, the percentage of support however, climbs when looking at Quebec francophones, with 49 percent approving of the bill.
Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Studies Jack Jedwab says Quebec is the only place in the western and democratic world than imposes religious sanctions and restrictions on it its citizens. Jedwab believes the whole charter is an embarrassment for the province, saying; "I think it will further embarrass us internationally."
The PQ's minister for the Montreal area Jean-François Lisée designed the opting-out clause to the Charter of Values, which allows municipalities and institutions the opportunity for five-years with the possibility a renewal to delay the implementation. On Sept. 17, Lisée explained; "The decision to propose an opting-out by municipalities started with Côte-St-Luc. What should we do in the case of municipalities where historically, there is a strong religious community - a Jewish community? Should there not be a longer transition period?" McGill University, the McGill University Hospital Center (MUHC), and the Jewish General Hospital all said they oppose the charter and will be pursuing opting-out of it.
Côte-St-Luc's Mayor Anthony Housefather is not satisfied with the opt-out clause, he said it is not enough and that he and his municipality entirely oppose the charter, which he denounced in an op-ed published on Monday, Sept. 16 in the National Post. Housefather wrote; "It's a charter that the citizens of Côte-St-Luc - whatever their religion - are against…. Does this mean the menorah would be banned, even though the Jewish community has been here since 1760?"
It is not only the CIJA, most Jewish organizations in Quebec oppose the charter, the president of the Quebec branch of B'nai B'rith Harvey Levine also denounced the bill saying; "They're trying to remove religious freedoms. They're trying to impose rules on religious values."
The chair of the department of Jewish studies at McGill University, Eric Caplan said he has never seen complaints from students for their professor's religious symbols, but rather "I've had students complain about things a professor says, based on their political ideologies, that are totally divorced from their headcoverings or things dangling from their necks." Continuing Caplan said; "The question of bias that can make an unconstructive or uncomfortable atmosphere for students is really not related at all to headcovering. Teaching well and objectively is independent of any religious trappings or headcover."
Entirely coincidental and completely relevant was the Montreal Combined Jewish Appeal's slogan for their Fall 2013 fundraising campaign, "I'm here. For good." The slogan was adapted before the charter was even publicly proposed, but had been adopted by those oppose it. Federation CJA's President David Cape says the campaign's slogan resonates because it says; 'I'm here and I'm here to stay as part of the Jewish community of Montreal, a community that's been here for 250 years and is going to be here for many years to come."
Jedwab giving an academic perspective, see how offended the province's Jews feel by the charter; "Already you can see many people in the Jewish community feel offended by the very idea that for example a doctor wearing a kippah would not be allowed to practice in a hospital."
In response, Ontario is doing to the opposite, a Jewish Liberal Party Member of the Provincial Parliament; Monte Kwinter introduced a motion confirming the province's pledge to religious freedom and diversity that passed on Sept. 19. Kwinter explained to the Globe and Mail that the motion was intended to show that Quebec is the exception to the rule and does not represent the rest of Canada, and to reassure that Ontario has no intention of following suit.
MPP Kwinter stated; "When they hear that one province is doing something, they assume that Canada is doing it and it creates a negative image. People are saying, 'Is that going to happen in Ontario?' And all we're trying to do is reassure them that we would not support anything that would in any way put our ethnic communities, our cultural communities at risk in the way they're being put at risk in Quebec." The motion was also meant to further attract disgruntled Quebecers to their province.
With Federal support against the Quebec Charter of Values and public opinion slipping the chances of the charter becoming law is low as Prime Minister Harper indicated. In any event the new law will face fierce resistance from the province's religious group and its Jewish community. As the religious group that has been in Canada and Quebec the second longest time it promises to oppose the charter and will not implement it in any public institutions with overwhelming Jewish populations.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. 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 Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.