On September 10, the government of Quebec unveiled its controversial proposal for a Charter of Values which aims to reinforce secularism in the province. The charter has been met with a chorus of criticism from the rest of Canada, and to a lesser extent in Quebec. Much of the opposition to the charter is entirely reasonable, but the tenor of the reaction has undermined any serious discussion about the social and cultural issues the PQ’s proposal has brought to light. There has been no shortage of condemnation and mockery, but little willingness to entertain the possibility that a serious discussion on the issues of immigration, culture, and religion might be necessary. Canada would be well advised to look at recent political developments in Western Europe in order to gauge the potential costs of complacency on these matters.
The narrative propagated almost universally from commentators across the political spectrum in English Canada is fairly straightforward. The charter is an embattled leader’s cynical attempt to use a wedge issue to galvanize the support of her nationalistic base. Occasionally, this is complemented with the hypothesis that the proposal intentionally escalates the division between Quebec Francophones and the rest of Canada, thus furthering the cause of independence. Essentially, it has been depicted as a pernicious mix of political desperation, Machiavellianism, and separatist ideology. This might be accurate, but it cannot be assumed, and an alternative explanation is worth exploring, even if it requires abandoning the assumption of PQ malevolence that is being presented by most of the English press.
Even if we are to assume that the PQ was looking for a wedge issue, there is little to explain why this particular topic was seized upon. The uncomfortable fact is that multiculturalism is a continually contested arrangement throughout Canada, and western countries more broadly. In Quebec, where secular sentiments have particularly high currency, this is even more pronounced. The proposal can be seen as a chance for an opportunistic political party to galvanize support, but one could also more charitably regard it as an important matter that any responsible government would seek to address. The PQ would argue the latter while its opponents claim the former, but the two are not mutually exclusive. There is every reason to believe that political calculations have shaped the PQ’s approach, but this should not conceal the salience of the underlying issue.
Quebec is not alone in placing restrictions on public expressions of religion. France has controversial measures that go far beyond anything proposed in the charter. Aside from providing other examples of state-enforced secularism, and its potentially negative consequences, Europe has more importantly recently exemplified the risks of complacent multiculturalism. Earlier this month, Norwegian elections resulted in the likely ascension of a governing coalition that includes the Progress Party which is widely regarded as an anti-immigrant organization. In the United Kingdom the brief ascension of the British National Party to prominence, and the rising popularity of the less extreme but still controversial UK Independence Party, has also raised alarm over a possible nationalist cultural backlash. The rise of far-right political parties is concerning on a domestic level, but the potentially destabilizing international implications of rising rightist nationalism is troubling as well. Thus far, Canada has yet to see such a political party rise to prominence, but the risk remains if popular concerns on these issues are left unaddressed.
This is not to argue in favour of the PQ’s proposal. The claims that it is unnecessarily, restrictive, biased against non-European religious traditions, and arbitrary in its definitions are all reasonable. However, the tone of the overwhelmingly negative media coverage has managed to marry hyperbole with insouciance. It has presented the proposal as an insulting and dangerous attack on personal liberties, while simultaneously averring the unlikelihood of its ultimate enactment and neglecting to lend any serious consideration to the fact that it was polling with approximately 60 percent approval in Quebec. This serves to reinforce many Francophone Quebeckers’ suspicions that English Canada is unwilling or unable to understand, accommodate, or seriously engage with their concerns, and undermines the national unity to which the rest of Canada remains adamantly committed.
By assuming the worst of the PQ and failing to seriously consider public opinion within Quebec, the Canadian media and government have stifled a debate they should have contributed to. The PQ has intervened in a contentious matter, with a proposal that contains serious biases and will likely do more harm than good if it is implemented, but opponents of their proposal cannot allow themselves to be defined by complacent multiculturalism and the defense of a seemingly unsustainable status-quo. The support for enforced secularism cannot be reduced to prejudice and intolerance and summarily dismissed, though these worrying elements are certainly present to some extent. Furthermore, Quebeckers’ desire to retain their Quebecois identity cannot be trivialized if the cultural tensions within Quebec and between Quebec and the rest of Canada are going to be attenuated. To be fair, striking a balance between the need to protect the identity of the Francophone minority in Canada and the need to protect minority groups within Quebec is no easy task, but it is a necessary one that federalist voices have failed to live up to on this occasion.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from this controversy, if recent developments in Europe are any indication, is that the defense of multiculturalism must be an active, rather than reactive, endeavour. To be successful over the long term, opponents of the Quebec Charter of Values cannot simply oppose a change for the worse. They must address the evolving concerns of Quebeckers, move beyond the status quo, and argue on behalf of change for the better.