A controversial proposal in Quebec would prohibit civil servants from wearing religious garments and certain symbols in the workplace.
If passed, Quebec’s Charter of Values would ban religious symbols, including large Christian crucifixes, the Jewish yarmulke, Muslim hijab or Sikh turbans. The regulation would apply to day care workers, hospital personnel, judges, police, prosecutors, school employees, teachers and university staff in Quebec’s public sector.
The Quebec government’s action trumps existing protection under current Canadian law based on religion. Experts say this is another example of the Quebec province promoting the protection and development of a distinct Québécois culture, language and society separate from the rest of Canada.
“By its very nature, this proposal is racist. Worse—it’s legislative racism,” said Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto. “I thought we were living in a day and age where society encourages—not discourages—inclusive behavior.”
Bernard Drainville, the Quebec politician spearheading the campaign, said at a news conference in Montreal in September 2013 that there would be exceptions; some public-service employees would be allowed to don “discrete symbols,” such as a small cross or the Star of David.
“This charter is dripping in contradiction,” Bach said in a reaction posted to his video blog, “The Diversity Diary,” dated Sept. 11, 2013. “There’s no such thing as a ‘discrete symbol’ if you are Muslim wearing a hijab or a Sikh wearing a turban.”
Drainville added that the proposed legislation is a further step in strengthening the province’s “secular society,” as reported by the Montreal Gazette.
“I understand the motivation behind a secular society—it’s to ensure that religion does not have too much influence over public office,” Bach noted. However, “the concept of a ‘secular society’ simply does not exist.
“It requires people to leave a piece of themselves at the door when they go to work,” he continued. “For some people, it’s asking them to leave their ethnicity at home. It’s a part of their spiritual identity—it’s a part of who they are.”
According to Statistics Canada, 90.25 percent of Quebecers consider themselves Christian, while 5.8 percent have no religious affiliation.
“In other words, the charter affects about 4 percent of the province’s population,” Bach explained. “Muslims, Sikhs and Jews account for 2.9 percent of the population—those who would be most affected,” he said.
Rethinking Diversity in Quebec’s Private Sector
If the Charter of Quebec Values becomes law, a poll conducted by Canadian Business magazine in September 2013 suggested that employees are more likely to fight the ban than conform to it. If a Canadian employer restricted religious clothing or symbols in the workplace:
- 51 percent of Canadians say a ban would not affect them.
- 14 percent would refuse to comply with the ruling.
- 10 percent would take legal action against their employer.
- 11 percent would comply unwillingly with the ban.
- 5 percent would quit their job.
“If there’s a proposal to ban religious symbols in [Quebec’s] public sector, how long will it take to ban them in the private sector?” Bach questioned.
Marisa Feil, an attorney at immigration law firm FWCanada in Montreal, said there is a possibility that whatever becomes the norm in Quebec’s public sector could spill over into practice in the private sector.
Anil Verma, Ph.D., director of the Center of Industrial Relations and a professor of human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, disagreed. “Quebec’s private sector will not abide by the ruling,” Verma said in an interview with SHRM Online. Verma surmised the number of lawsuits against the Quebec government would increase if the legislation is passed.
“It’s not clear how the charter would be implemented,” François Paré, Ph.D., a professor of French studies at the University of Waterloo, told SHRM Online. He said he suspects the separatist Parti Quebecois government would introduce the measure through discussion and incentives.
Furthermore, nearly three out of four Canadians say they oppose firing government employees who wear religious symbols at work, according to a CTV-Ipsos Reid poll released in October 2013.
Quebec’s governing party should clarify whether workers who breach the charter’s rules would be fired, fined, ticketed or charged with an offense, said John Wright, senior vice president at Ipsos Reid, quoted in the The Globe and Mail.
“I find it very difficult to imagine that a government employee would be fired over [wearing] a turban or hijab, as it is no cost to the employer,” Paré added.
Escaping Religious Persecution?
In response, several medical facilities in the neighboring province of Ontario are trying to lure Quebec-trained health care workers who may be affected if the ruling passes.
A hospital in the Greater Toronto Area placed an ad in a McGill University student newspaper in Montreal in September 2013 featuring a woman wearing a headscarf with the caption: “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.”
It’s unlikely that civil servants would move, Paré explained, as migrants tend to relocate for economic reasons, not because of socio-political issues where their lives are not threatened.
“It may not be so easy for people to just relocate to another province, but certain government employees may choose to give up their well-paying jobs with excellent benefits, as they will not be entitled to their religious freedoms,” Feil wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online.
According to Verma, Ontario has different laws in place compared with Quebec to accommodate diversity. He advises human resources professionals in Ontario to educate their staff about accommodation—that an employer must adhere to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s code to prevent and remove barriers in the workplace in the context of age, creed, disability and gender identity.
Interculturalism vs. Multiculturalism
Several European countries, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, have also had referendums to ban religious symbols in the past decade.
BBC News reported that France was the first European country to ban “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools in 2004, and Denmark followed suit in its courtrooms in 2008. A number of European countries have since passed referendums prohibiting the full-face Islamic veil in public places, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Swiss canton of Ticino in September 2013.
Experts say that although it is difficult to compare Quebec’s situation with Europe, both cultures are emphasizing intercultural integration rather than multiculturalism.
“[Interculturalism] takes [ideas] from other cultures; it allows Quebec culture to become more diverse, but the idea is for everyone to head in the same direction and speak the same language,” Quebec Immigration Minister Diane de Courcy stated in September 2013.
Therefore, the Quebec government may feel it is justified in proposing this legislation because it has been successful in Europe, Feil noted.
Experts conclude that Canadians should continue to engage in a healthy debate about the role faith plays in modern-day society.
“Canadians today value inclusion,” wrote Alan Broadbent, chairman and founder, and Ratna Omidvar, president, of Toronto-based Maytree Foundation in a September 2013 opinion piece. “An inclusive society is deeper than a society of immigrants, or the elastically-defined one of multiculturalism. Inclusive societies are those without cultural ceilings, especially in the workplace. They are built on the theory that diversity creates strong and vibrant economies, because good ideas are made better when they are shaped by different minds.”
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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