I have this sick feeling. Not because the Parti Québécois (PQ) will soon call a Quebec provincial election in which it can win a majority; I feel sick about how the PQ is going to go about it.
The Charter of Quebec Values is blossoming as a positive election issue for the PQ. Recent polls demonstrate how a growing majority of French Quebecers see the charter as a positive force to bolster their collective rights, emboldening them to almost scream out loud, “They are Quebecers and this is French Quebec.”
A few weeks ago, a young woman boarded a plane from New York City to Montreal. She overheard a Québécois couple in conversation about Jewish religious people on the same plane. In French, and not thinking they were being understood, one of them muttered, “I thought we were flying to Montreal not to Israel.” That is the mindset behind the charter.
The charter was not as popular when it was first presented six months ago. Even two former Quebec PQ premiers opposed it, as did some nationalist interest groups. They believed proposed legislation eliminating “conspicuous” or overly noticeable religious symbols worn by people in the public sector in Quebec was uncalled for and not worthy of Quebecers.
They thought it silly to debate how people serving the public can wear a small crucifix or a small Star of David but not a big one around their neck. They opposed the whole notion of burkas, hijabs, turbans and kippahs being made matters of public policy.
What they also knew, but probably wouldn’t say, is how the number of people who actually serve the public with any form of religious garb is so minuscule you would have to ask why any Quebec government would run the risk of having the majority look like heavy-handed bullies.
The reason reflects Quebec’s French majority being a minority in North America. Insecurity within that context has always made Quebecers keenly aware of the difference between collective and individual rights. To protect themselves from what they see as a never-ending threat to their language and culture, they believe laws need to be passed sometimes at the expense of individual rights of others.
The Charter of Quebec Values follows the template of the Charter of the French Language. The rationale behind both is to protect Quebecers, by protecting their language, their culture and their very existence and growth in Quebec.
Perhaps you can better see why that Québécois couple on the Montreal bound plane would ask themselves if they were flying to Montreal or Israel when they saw religious Jews on the plane. You could say they are small-minded xenophobes or you could try to explain it by adding they feel what they feel because the Quebec of their ancestors is, in their minds, threatened.
The Charter of Quebec Values may make some Quebecers feel better, but it is not going to change anything concretely. No charter of values can turn the demographic clock back a hundred years. But feeling better is important. Politicians learned a long time ago that the better you make people feel, the more votes you get.
The Charter of Quebec Values is not just the product of instant electoral gratification, although it sure looks that way. To be fair, the thinking behind the charter goes back several years to Quebec’s hearings on religious and cultural accommodation.
The thinking of that arduous process was accommodation was always possible and desirable in Quebec, as long as limits were set. And that brings us to the beginnings of the legislative word “conspicuous.”
Some years back, a rabbi put up a big, “conspicuous” mezuzah in a Montreal condo where few Jews lived. For the record, the other two mezuzahs in the building were small and discreet.
Within a month, the condo owner, yours truly, got a call from the administrator of the building. It was a polite and respectful conversation in which I was asked if it were possible to replace the big mezuzah with a small mezuzah. He talked about accommodation.
My conclusion, long before the Charter of Quebec Values, was that, if you want a mezuzah in a shared building, make it small so Quebecers can hardly see it, or, perhaps more politely, remember they have a collective right, which enables them to tell you how big they think it should be.