The federal politics of Quebec’s Values Charter

Andy Radia

Note to Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair: Canadians are waiting for you to show some leadership with regard to Quebec's Values Charter.

Last week, we learned that Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois government is poised to unveil controversial legislation that would reportedly ban public employees from wearing religious symbols, such as crosses, hijabs and turbans, in public institutions.

[ Related: Parti Québécois poised to introduce ban on religious symbols in public institutions ]

So far, the only federal leader to speak out against the proposed Charter is Justin Trudeau.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has only said that he doesn't want to see "scapegoating" of certain types of Quebecers while the Conservatives have said very little.

That tact doesn't sit well with the National Post's editorial board.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair, consistent with his overall pattern of running scared from anything that might offend the lowest common denominator of Quebec public opinion, has refused to denounce Ms. Marois’ initiative.

Here we have a clear case of a xenophobic provincial government trying to restrict the religious freedom of Canadian citizens, and the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition both do nothing but hum and haw.

It is a pathetic display of political cowardice, and one that voters should remember, come the next election, when both men sing their well-rehearsed odes to “Canadian values.”

Political consultant Gerry Nicholls says that federal leaders' silence has everything to do with politics.

"Harper and Mulcair don’t want to become involved. It’s a no win scenario. If they oppose the secular charter, they risk offending nationalistic minded Quebec voters; if they endorse it, they risk losing support from voters in the rest of the country," Nicholls told Yahoo! Canada News in an email exchange.

"I’m sure Quebecers voters will use this charter question as a litmus test for the federal leaders."

[ Related: Quebecers support the Parti Quebecois’ Values Charter: poll ]

Montreal-based political scientist Bruce Hicks says it's a risky for either Mulcair or Harper to say anything of substance.

"The details of the proposed Charter of Quebec Values are not known. The items that have been leaked may become part of it, may be a trial balloon...or it may be a complete distraction. There is no political incentive for any federal politician sticking their neck out and commenting on ideas that could be non-starters," Hicks told Yahoo! in an email exchange, on Tuesday morning.

"For a leader of the federal Parliament to involve itself in what is an internal debate about what it means to be a Québécois (a member of the Quebec nation) could be seen as interference in an internal debate.

"The fact that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been willing to speak out on the issue reflects his strong beliefs about individual and group rights (his father gave Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), his own identity as a Québécois who believes in federalism and multiculturalism (the latter is also his father’s legacy) and the fact that his political party has to take risks to win more seats in the next election."

Hicks does contend, however, that Harper and Mulcair risk looking as if they're failing to stand-up for human rights.

[ More Canadian Politics: Nigel Wright engaged two Tory senators while negotiating Duffy payout: report ]

Last week, Yahoo! Canada News spoke with Salam Elmenyawi, who heads the Muslim Council of Montreal. He says that the Muslim community feels as if it's being targeted by the PQ government.

"These kinds of laws are divisive and enforces negative stereotypes about minorities especially religious minorities," he said.

"This infringes on our freedom of religion, freedom of culture which is part of our constitutional rights in Canada."

Anecdotally, at least, it seems Canadians want Harper and Mulcair to put politics aside, stop walking on eggshells and stand up for the rights of minority Canadians — who just happen to live in province of Quebec.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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