Opinion » Maxed Out

The theatre of the absurd plays out in Quebec



The Parti Quebecois government in La Belle Province has been on the receiving end of a lot of flack lately over its proposed Charter of Quebec Values. The charter seeks to establish Quebec as a secular society. Under most circumstances I would applaud that goal; the world has enough whacko governments run by religious nuts, not the least of which is the one on our southern border where every political speech, no matter how innocuous, concludes with the tiresome and blatantly ridiculous, "... and God bless America."

Quebec itself lived under the heel, or cassock if you will, of the Catholic church for, well, ever, until the Révolution tranquille freed men from shaving their palms and they began to shave their faces instead. For years, it was a toss-up between les Anglais and the priests as to who was the bigger oppressor, but having liberated themselves from the sins of the Fathers, the Québecois were free to turn their attention to liberating themselves from English Canadians as well. And so we had referenda where, by razor-thin votes, Quebec residents voted to keep the sweet deal they have with the rest of Canada instead of forming their own république bananière.

This, of course, is all ancient history, which is to say something dating back to the Before Time — the time before the Internet. The twin oppression of the Church and the English are burdens not carried by anyone under 30 in Quebec and only vaguely remembered as stories heard in childhood by anyone a decade older. Quebec is its own country, in every meaningful way except being invited to join the United Nations. Even Stephen Harper — who, rumour has it, needs a GPS to even find Quebec — has acknowledged this.

But hitting above its weight has never been enough for the PQ hardliners. They want their own country. And if they can't have their own country, they at least want a province where everyone speaks the same language and shares the same values. They want to be Manitoba... only with better cuisine and style and no visible Hutterites or Mennonites. They want everyone to look like the pure laine Quebecois that populate the countryside, though perhaps not quite so inbred. They chafe at the miasma of foreign looking people who walk the streets of Montreal, speak French with an accent, wear unusual — and highly unstylish — clothes and generally give one the impression of having stepped into the alien bar in Star Wars.

While they've done a good job of at least making everyone speak the local patois and all but obliterated written English with Bill 101, the Charter of Quebec Values seeks to prohibit all those "others" from wearing visible, conspicuous religious symbols if they work for the province. In Quebec, everyone works for the government, just ask any small business owner. The sweep of the charter would, arguably, include civil servants, uncivil servants, doctors, nurses and everyone else working in healthcare and social services, teachers, administrators and support staff in education, and, quite possibly, les Canadiens. The only group it probably wouldn't include are the mob bosses running the extortion rackets, er, construction companies we've all heard so much about.

So if they work for the province, Muslim women, for example, couldn't wear any of the various head, face, or full-body coverings that lead small children to walk expectantly behind them shouting, "Trick or Treat!" Sikhs couldn't wear their turbans, religious symbols that have been litigated in virtually every court in the land and always decided in the Sikhs' favour. Jews couldn't wear their kippas and let's not discuss the outfits worn by the ultra-orthodox. Hindus might be in hot water over their bindi. And Catholics couldn't wear crucifixes.

What? Crucifixes are OK. Really? Oh, I see. They're considered "discreet" religious symbols, not conspicuous ones. What about ashen thumbprints on the foreheads after Pancake Day? Jury's out on that one. What about turbans worn as a sartorial statement by non-Sikhs? Well, no I don't know anyone who does but that's not the point, is it?