After weeks of rumours, the Parti Québécois government has finally released the details of their proposed “Charter of Quebec Values”. According to the PQ government, the charter is needed to continue the traditions established during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, ensuring a proper separation of church and state and defending Quebec society from the dangers of religious indoctrination. However, for many in Quebec, the charter is correctly seen as an attempt to target ethnic and religious minorities for the crisis that plagues Quebec society, and to set one sector of the working class against the other.
The “Charter of Secularism”, as it has become known, proposes banning most religious symbols from public institutions as well as banning public-sector workers from wearing religious garb — most notably, the hijab, the Muslim head-covering.
Much of the outcry about the charter is over the fact that the Quebec government is not proposing to treat all religions equally. In hypocritical fashion, typical of the PQ, most Christian symbols will remain in public institutions. Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, said, “The crucifix is there to stay, in the name of history, in the name of heritage.” The cross will remain atop Mont Royal in Montreal and the crucifix will still hang from the walls of the National Assembly. Given the supposed aim of the charter, the cross inside the National Assembly is particularly ironic; it was first hung in the legislature by despotic former premier Maurice Duplessis during the 1930s to symbolize the unity of the Church and of the state! Nor has there been a peep from the provincial government over Jean Tremblay, the mayor of Saguenay, being allowed by the provincial Court of Appeal to open every local council meeting with a Christian prayer. Drainville was caught off-guard when he was asked whether elected officials and courtroom witnesses would continue to swear oaths on the bible; appearing dumbfounded, he answered, “Oh, my God… we’ll get back to you.”
Public support for the PQ has quickly tumbled since their election victory in the fall of 2012. Since being elected, Pauline Marois’ government has reneged on many of its campaign promises. In this past spring’s provincial budget, the PQ put forward the smallest increase in public spending of any Quebec government in the past 14 years. For this reason, the charter has come as a lifeline for the Marois government, distracting everyone from the PQ’s broken promises and sowing divisions within Quebec society.
This all just shows that this debate has nothing to do with secularism or the separation of church and state; instead, the PQ is playing a political game of identity politics to divide workers and get votes in a manner similar to the rise of the ADQ in 2007. The immediate effect has been a boost for the PQ to their highest level of support since the election last September, most of it coming from rural Quebec. After free-falling in the polls due to their continuation of the austerity program of the previous Liberal government, the PQ is now within just a few points of the Liberals.
The news in not all good for the PQ government. Since the charter’s release, it has sparked a massive backlash, most particularly in the multicultural metropolis of Montreal. In the course of just two days, over 12,000 people signed a petition against the charter, and as many as 50,000 people came out to demonstrate against the charter on 14th September in Montreal. As the finer points of the charter have been revealed, overall support for the charter has dropped from 57% to 43%, with 42% across Quebec opposed to it. Opposition to the charter is much higher in the province’s two largest cities, with almost 60% opposing the government’s document in both Montreal and Quebec City. Hundreds of community groups have come out against the charter, as well as the vast majority of municipal and federal politicians in Montreal. We have even started to see the first splits emerge from within the nationalist movement itself; federal Member of Parliament Maria Mourani was expelled from the Bloc Québécois’ caucus after publicly opposing the charter, reducing the BQ to just three seats in the House of Commons.
The PQ’s machinations have also released some of the more extreme elements in Quebec society into lashing out at the Muslim community. In the northern city of Saguenay, a mosque was defiled after its walls were splashed with pig’s blood. All over the province, there have been a number of reports of Muslim women being harassed and demonized for wearing the hijab. This persecution of other religions has even been amplified by comments made by provincial MNAs. Pauline Marois, herself, has said that wearing a hijab is a “form of submission”, and she fears that daycare workers in positions of authority could incite children to practice religion.
Although opposition to the charter is quickly mounting, the PQ is still ahead from where it was before the debate began. Overall, the PQ is up in the polls by six percentage points and overall satisfaction with the government has gone up by 10 points.
The PQ’s attempts to divide the working class are having a certain degree of success if we look at the labour movement’s reaction to the charter debate. The main teachers’ union in Quebec, the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, which represents 32,000 teachers across the province, has come out against the charter. The union’s president, Sylvain Mallette, presented the union’s position in an interview: “We won’t go on a witch hunt to see who wears a hijab, kippa, or cross…. We will defend the right of our members to work.” On the other hand, Quebec’s civil servants’ union, which represents 42,000 workers, publicly supports the charter. This unfortunate situation will be used to sow divisions in the workers’ movement and distract the public sector unions from uniting to fight the PQ’s budgetary squeeze, which is resulting in wage freezes and cuts in the public sector. Furthermore, the Quebec economy has lost 44,400 jobs; by raising the spectre of the charter, the Quebec government has masterfully orchestrated this distraction to hide the fact that the PQ is completely unable to lead us out of the blind alley of the capitalist crisis.
The labour movement needs to remember that the “Quebec values” the Parti Québécois and their big business supporters wish to defend are the ones that come attached with big dollar signs. The so-called “Charter of Quebec Values” is nothing more than a distraction that can divide the movement so that the government’s real program of cuts and corporate tax breaks will go ahead unopposed. Marois, herself, has even admitted as much when she said, “I’m very proud of what our team has accomplished for Quebec…. We re-established social peace,” in reference to the PQ’s role in subduing the student movement. These are the real values that matter to the Quebec ruling class.
The leadership of Quebec solidaire has, unfortunately, also missed the true aims of the PQ’s charter. Instead of highlighting the distraction from the real social crises that face Quebec’s workers and young people, QS’ public statements have been rather conciliatory towards the charter. Although QS formally disagrees with the charter, they do state in the first line of their website statement, “Québec solidaire welcomes several guidelines proposed by Minister Drainville.” Not only is the QS leadership failing to expose the bourgeois roots of the PQ, but they are not doing enough to condemn the discriminatory and divisive policies of the Marois government and the effect this can have on the unity of the Quebec working class. Quebec solidaire needs to clearly show that they are not simply the left rump of the PQ. The same critique can also be levelled at the federal NDP who, up until very recently, had barely mentioned an opinion on the “Charter of Quebec values”. At both the provincial and federal level, the Liberals have taken the opportunity to wrap themselves in the banner of “multiculturalism” in an effort to attract immigrants and working-class anglos who are disgusted by the provincial government’s charter and feel marginalized by the government’s actions. The refusal by QS and the NDP to adopt a clear class line against the populist and distracting actions of the PQ is giving the Liberals new life in Quebec, particularly in Montreal. Instead of joining QS or the NDP, these workers are joining a party that represents the same class interests as the PQ, and who will continue the assault on their rights and living standards. More than ever, the labour movement, Quebec solidaire, and the NDP need to be putting forward demands that call for the unity of all workers and youth, from across all national lines, against the austerity of the PQ, the Conservatives, and the Liberals.
There is little hope that the charter will ever be fully implemented in Quebec. Will the Quebec government actually press charges against workers who fail to comply with the charter? If workers refuse to comply, will the government actually fire them? Will the unions simply stand by as the government persecutes its members? And what will happen to municipalities who refuse to comply with the charter, just as Montreal has promised? Even though the charter will ultimately be toothless, it will still have served its purpose as a political stunt — distracting everyone from the PQ’s broken promises, distracting workers from the PQ’s continuation of the Charest Liberals’ austerity, and further dividing (and weakening) the workers’ movement in Quebec.
Although the charter will ultimately have little real effect in Quebec, it is vital that the labour movement raise a campaign that highlights the real aims of the charter. A campaign of mass defiance from the public sector unions would quickly put an end to the PQ’s piece of political theatre, revealing its toothlessness to the whole of Quebec society. More importantly, it would aid in showing workers and youth of all nationalities that their enemies are not their class brothers and sisters, but the Quebec bosses who try to take advantage of the divisions in society in order to preserve their dominance over all of us.
This article was originally published in our French-language sister journal, La Riposte (Québec).