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Quebec charter left a legacy of religious, racial tension
While the Quebec Charter of Values never took effect it has left an enduring tension that, if left unchecked by government officials, may worsen relationships among Quebecs diverse religious minorities and secular majority. - photo by Maria Vanta
Yasmine had a generous scholarship to study in her hometown of Montral, where her family migrated from Algeria before she was born and where many of her friends live.

But the 22-year-old who identifies as a French-speaking Qubcois chose to move south and pursue studies at the University of Toronto. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her family in Montreal from what she sees an ongoing discrimination against religious minorities.

"Life in Montral is becoming unbearable for people of a certain background, especially after that charter," says Yasmine who, despite being a non-practicing Muslim, still worries about being openly critical of Qubec society.

She's referring to the infamous Bill 60, or Charter of Values, that would have mandated government employees not be allowed to wear "conspicuous religious symbols" while on the job, although more subdued ones would have been permissible. In effect, this would have allowed Christians to discretely wear crosses, while Muslims would not have been able to wear hijabs or Jews kippas at work in government offices.

While supporters characterized the charter's intent as maintaining a neutral, secular image of the government, others saw it as blatantly racist, primarily targeting Muslims, and it sparked weeks of protests.

The proposed charter never took effect and historians say it contributed to last year's defeat of the ruling Party Qubcois in parliamentary elections. But it has left an enduring tension between left and right, as well as between Francophones, Anglophones and immigrants. And observers fear if the residual impact of the proposed charter goes unchecked, relationships among Quebecs diverse religious minorities and secular majority will worsen.

"These things come in cycles, says Matthew Hayday, an associate professor in the Department of History at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada. There is no way this is a dead issue; it is only dormant now because it was so heated during the last election cycle."

Pillars of identity

The answer to what made it acceptable for the charter to be proposed in the first place lies in the history of Qubecs cultural identity.

Initially settled by the French, Qubec became a British colony following the Seven Years' War. But the province has largely preserved its distinctive French-speaking culture amid the Anglophone society in neighboring provinces and the United States. This historical background shaped the pillars of Qubcois identity and ensured distinct differences between Qubec and the rest of Canada.

"At first, it was very clear what the basic elements of Francophone Qubec identity were, namely that it was Roman Catholic, French speaking and primarily rural and community oriented," says Hayday.

The Catholic Church controlled large segments of formal Qubcois life as well as the informal aspects of what was socially acceptable and what was not.

This deeply religious and traditional society rapidly disintegrated, however, in the wake of the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s, which broke what many saw as the domineering and repressive control of the church. During this period of great social change, all services previously provided by the church health care, education, welfare became nationalized and effectively secularized many aspects of everyday life.

"Qubcois very rapidly turn away from the Catholic Church, at least formally: they stop going to mass, they stop following its teachings, they start using birth control and Qubec's birth rate plunges to below the ability to replace itself," says Hayday.

Within a 10-year period, a society that had been deeply religious became militantly secular.

The rapid movement of people into the greater Montral area in the 1960s began chipping away the Qubcois identity of living in bucolic, rural communities, explains Michael Behiels, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa.

"Every year thousands and thousands moved closer to Montral because that's where the jobs, the better education and future opportunities were," he says.

"That means that you're down to one key pillar of what identifies Francophone Qubcois, and that's their language," says Hayday.

To protect its cultural heritage against a declining birth rate, Qubec signed an agreement with the federal government giving the province control over the selection of independent immigrants, allowing it to deliberately target Francophone countries.

Thats when Yasmine's parents migrated to Montral from French-speaking Algeria.

"When you look at which countries actually produced immigrants to North America in the 1970s, it's not European it's not France and Belgium it's the Maghreb countries of North Africa, it's Vietnam, it's Haiti," says Hayday.

Rural fears rule

By the early 1990s, Qubec had shifted from a homogenous Francophone, Catholic province to a considerably more multi-ethnic, multi-religious one, especially in its urban centers.

"New immigrants into Qubec wanted to practice their faith in a very active, open way, and they began to pressure for changes in Qubec society, in schools, social services and recreational facilities," says Behiels. "This enraged many of the old Catholics who had to give up all of that and had even lost their jobs following the Quiet Revolution."

The transformation took place so rapidly that it also created pressures for the government to "do something" to address the fear that Qubcois identity was being lost, a fear most prevalent in rural communities.

"The irony is that there are hardly any (immigrants) who live in rural Qubec, they all live in Montral and the surrounding suburbs," says Behiels. "Yet there was this fear campaign that there would be too many Muslims."

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Canadian population data, Qubec is still overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with minority religions, including Islam, making up 7 percent of the population. The Muslim population is reportedly the fastest growing faith in the country, but it still only accounts for 3.2 percent of the Canada's population.

Nevertheless, seeking a majority government, the traditionally left-leaning Parti Qubcois aggressively adopted an agenda playing off of fears against growing religious minorities and formally proposed the charter in the fall of 2013.

"This proved to be quite a miscalculation on their part," says Behiels.

Lingering legacy

In proposing the charter, the PQ attempted to satisfy two very distinct sets of voters: the academics, intellectuals and urbanites who reside in Montral and are its traditional voting base, as well as the more conservative, traditional Qubcois who live in rural areas.

"This was a big mistake. When the charter came out it alienated a wide array of highly educated people in Qubec who were otherwise supporters. Many Qubcois pulled back and said, 'No, this is too risky, we will be branded as an outlier in the international community if we take such a hard line against integration of Muslims in our society,' " says Behiels, adding that, "on the far right there is still a deep-seated hostility towards Muslims."

The PQ faced a crippling defeat in the 2014 provincial election to the Liberal Party, which was able to secure the first clear majority government in more than 40 years.

But Yasmine said the prejudice she experienced while the charter was being considered went beyond religion. "Many started equating skin color with Islam. My family is non-practicing I've never worn a hijab in my life and have always identified as French Qubcois yet in the past few years many people started classifying me as being one of those people," she says.

Though the charter itself has become a cautionary tale of how a misguided notion of religious freedom can backfire into a movement of religious oppression, lingering tension in Qubec suggests that this issue is by no means resolved.

In February, a Qubec judge suspended a case brought by a Muslim woman who refused to remove her religious headcovering in court. Justice Eliana Marengo compared Rania El-Allouls hijab to a ball cap or sunglasses, both of which are not permissible in court.

In a twist of irony, the country's Prime Ministers Office as well as federal opposition leaders were quick to condemn the ruling, just weeks after the PMO announced it would appeal a Supreme Court ruling to allow the wearing of face-covering niquabs during citizenship ceremonies.

Despite the lingering tensions, the new Liberal government of Qubec has not engaged with the debate surrounding the charter and the place of religion in society.

"No one knows what the Liberals intend or if they will ever get around to introducing legislation on this topic. They may not do anything because it is a very volatile issue and their priorities are to try and save what they can of the Qubec economy," says Behiels. "They don't want to open the religious issue right now."
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