Quebec values charter: Government has legal right on its side

David T Jones
Quebec values charter: Government has legal right on its side

Sometimes, when observing Quebec versus Rest-of-Canada interaction, an American may note with amusement, “They really know how to push each other’s buttons!”

And thus, during what otherwise would be a middling summer dominated domestically by Senate financial improprieties and internationally by whether/not Syrians used chemical weapons, we have an imbroglio over the “Charter of Quebec Values.”

But rather than being a mechanism to suppress societal multiculturalism, the Charter appears designed to regulate the action of Quebec civil servants for public benefit. And, in such regard, the Quebec government appears to have sociocultural and even legal right on its side.

That such a still nascent document could generate intense reactions speaks both to the underlying insecurity of many Francophone Quebeckers and hostility from those for whom any intimation of Quebec separatism must be cudgeled.

Consequently, we read the over-the-top semi-comparisons of this document to Nazi-era German fascism and the supposed “adolescent” nature of Quebec society. One vigorous defender of the prospective charter was characterized as a “blowfish” and a “cranky political footnote”--terms assured to inflame rather mollify the participants. Indeed, a pouring-gasoline-on-the barbeque food fight fills August-September media column inches.

So protestors march, albeit not in 2012 “Maple Spring” numbers, and constitutional experts pontificate over the (non)acceptability of a Quebec Charter to the federal Supreme Court. Talk about roasting chickens before the eggs are laid!

We are all aware of the power that symbols worn by authority figures. Thus, the United States clearly limits what public officials can wear and how they can present themselves at events outside their workplace. Hence, a member of the armed forces should not wear a military uniform at a political event. Supervisors should not display political party pins or distribute political literature to employees. An employer cannot solicit political contributions from workers.

In short, it is reasonable to want public servants to present neutral images without political, religious, or social symbols intruding into the public’s perception of them personally or professionally.

  • If you were seeking an abortion would you feel uncomfortable if clinic staff members were wearing prominent Christian crosses?
  • Would you bring charges of trespass or verbal assault by a Muslim to a police officer wearing a hijab or other Islamic symbols?
  • Would an Orthodox Jew feel inhibited about making a complaint regarding anti-Semitic graffiti at a station where police officers are displaying Christian crosses?
  • Would students be constrained from religious critiques when addressing a teacher clearly wearing symbols of the religion?

Consequently, in discussing Quebec’s Charter of Values, the distinction between public workers and private displays should be kept firmly in mind. The Charter will not impinge on religious practices outside government facilities. Nor on the religious practices/displays of individuals when they end their working day. Nor on wearing religious symbols beneath clothing while at work.

Essentially, there is no societal right/obligation to be a public official. If you do not agree to the restrictions, e.g., specific office hours, drug tests, background investigation, credit checks, you need not seek the position. You may be required to adhere to a dress code (if you don’t like wearing uniforms, avoid the armed forces) that, at a minimum, differs from what you might wear as a rock-group entertainer.

Conversely, if you seek employment with a religious organization, you can expect to see religious symbols. These, in effect, advertise the religious/philosophical principles they espouse. Indeed, as a requirement of employment, you may be directed to wear modest clothing and act according to the principles of the religion employing you.

Comparably in private industry, you may be directed to wear specific clothing (airline steward; a “Hooters” outfit; a FedEx uniform) and/or adhere to a dress code of employer devising. The proprietor has a right to direct employees how they should present themselves to the public.

Nor are we naïve. It is obvious the minority Parti Quebecois government is struggling to find traction with issues engaging its core Francophone constituency. And for good reason. Recalling world history, small minorities surrounded by powerful, culturally attractive majorities, tend to be absorbed. The number of “dead languages” illustrate that thriving cultures can implode. Minor Protestant denominations (Amish, Mennonites) struggle for cultural survival. Even American Jews frequently feel besieged--because they no longer need fight vicious anti-Semitism.

Many forces are at play in Quebec. Youth both believes itself more “Quebecois” and less “Canadian”--but also is more tolerant and multicultural in its attitudes. Are they more confident--or ignorant of politicocultural realities?

The next Quebec election will address some serious issues.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.