You may have heard that if Quebec’s government has its way, we’ll be seeing far fewer yarmulkes on the province’s streets. We certainly would be seeing none of them on the heads of people working or receiving services at government offices, and public schools, daycare centers and hospitals.
The governing Parti Québécois party’s proposed “charter of values” —effectively, a legal ban on religious symbols in the pubic sector— has been met with condemnation from many political leaders, including Jewish ones, in the province that includes Montreal.
Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, wrote in the Huffington Post that “the so-called ‘charter of values’ reportedly being contemplated by our provincial government would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades.”
Cotler charged the PQ, led by Pauline Marois, with misinterpreting the separation of church and state principle and of planning to deny religious freedom, a right guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He went to so far as to sugges that PQ founder René Lévesque is rolling in his grave.
Lionel Perez adopts a slightly more diplomatic tone, but he essentially sides with Cotler. Perez, a 43-year-old attorney and entrepreneur, is the interim mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal’s largest and most diverse borough, with residents from more than 100 different cultural communities. He is also a kippa-wearing religiously observant Jew and has a very personal stake in all of this.
In an opinion piece in the French-language Le Devoir, Perez wrote that he does not oppose a secular charter per se, but that he is arguing for an inclusive secularism. “The goal of an inclusive secularism is aiming to build a genuinely plural public space, to build a society that avoids marginalizing or traps our citizens in a single mold, depriving them of the right to their moral or religious choice,” he wrote.
“I believe that values of tolerance, respect for others and moral autonomy are equally as fundamental as Quebec secularism.”
With the fact that Montreal accepts over 90 percent of all immigrants to Quebec in mind, Perez is presenting a motion to the city’s government asking it to speak up against what the provincial government is proposing.
“Obviously there is a lot of concern. Any time you have any kind of legislation that indicates any kind of separation, it causes for concern,” Perez told CTV News about his constituents’ reaction to the proposed charter.
“The fact that someone is wearing a some kind of religious symbol doesn’t deny his impartiality. As long as his acts, his spoken, doesn’t affect that neutrality, it shouldn’t be an issue.”
“I’ve been a city councilor for over four years. I’ve worn my kippa my entire adult life…and it’s never been an issue,” he added on a personal note.
From Perez’s perspective it hasn’t been an issue, but that is not necessarily how Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, the PQ’s point man for the forthcoming charter, sees it.
According to the Montreal Gazette, Perez’s borough came to Drainville’s attention last spring because of what Perez called “a tolerance for parking” for Shavuot (which must mean he suspended regular parking rules during the Jewish holiday).
Drainville described this as “an accommodation that is not necessary.”