On Monday, citizens of Quebec will go to the polls to vote for a new provincial government.
Two main players are facing off in this year’s elections: the Parti Quebecois (PQ), Quebec’s nationalist party currently ruling as a minority government and led by Premier Pauline Marois, against Quebec’s Liberal Party, ousted from power in 2012 after a wave of student protests fighting proposed tuition hikes, with newly-elected leader Philippe Couillard at its head.
1,057,706 people, or 17.8% of voters, already cast their ballots during the advance voting sessions held on March 30-31, and the most recent polls put the Liberals in the lead, with the potential for a majority win.
So, why should you care?
Earlier this year, the PQ released its proposal for a Charter of Values, portrayed as a means of promoting a religiously neutral state, as well as gender equality.
Under the Charter, presented to the National Assembly as Bill 60 and spearheaded by Premier Pauline Marois and Bernard Drainville, public servants would be forbidden to wear so-called “ostentatious” religious symbols such as kippahs, hijabs, turbans or large, and prominent crosses. Smaller and less “conspicuous” objects such as earings bearing religious symbols would still be tolerated.
The Charter has been met with vocal opposition by religious and ethnic minorities who see this push for secularization as discriminatory in a province where religion has long been a touchy subject. The Jewish community in particular has been quick to denounce what it sees as a “bad solution to a non-existent problem.”
Here are a few things to keep in mind as Election Day approaches.
1. This is what will happen if the Parti Quebecois wins a majority.
The Charter of Values is the third item on the party’s electoral strategy sheet, directly below Quebec sovereignty (the issue which is essentially its primary reason for being). So, it’s fair to say that it’s a major priority.
If the Charter becomes law, Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, police officers, government officials (need I go on?) will be forbidden to wear visible symbols that openly flaunt their religious beliefs.
But the law goes even further. Organizations that receive public funding from the Quebec government will also have to comply. Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, for example, could no longer serve kosher food, nor could its doctors wear yarmulkes while treating patients. One PQ candidate even proposed to do away with the “Jewish” in the hospital’s name.
2. Who will this law affect?
The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal // Wikimedia Commons.
According to the latest National Household Survey (2011) there are currently 85,100 Jews living in Quebec, the majority of whom live in the Montreal area. Jews are the fifth-largest religious group in the province; Catholics are first, followed by Protestants, Muslims and Christian Orthodox.
The older and more established Jewish community in Quebec is Ashkenazi and Anglophone — meaning their first language is English. Like their American counterparts, most arrived in Canada in the late 19th century or in the aftermath of the Second World War. The growing Sephardic community, largely French-speaking, immigrated to Quebec from North Africa (in large part because of language) in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why the emphasis on language? Welcome to Quebec. Language groups retain singular importance in a region where political and social affiliation depends largely on which language you were brought up speaking. The one thing that most Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews can agree on, however, is that they hate the Charter.
Opposition to the Charter makes for unlikely allies. Ethnic and religious minorities who might not otherwise agree — Jews and Muslims among them — have joined together in the face of a common perceived threat to their fundamental religious rights.
3. Many people say they will disobey.
Muslim women protest the Charter of Values in Montreal // Claude Robillard / Flickr.
Many Jewish groups have openly declared that they will flout the Charter of Values if it becomes law. The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal released a statement in November declaring it would publically defy the law, which its staff views as “patently discriminatory.” Others have found more creative ways to protest the dreaded kippah ban: one rabbi stamped his head covering with the blue-and-white Fleur-de-lys — the province’s flag and symbol of nationalism. “I thought this would be a great way to make a positive statement,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath told the Forward in December. “They want to ban the kippah? Let’s put a kippah on our heads!”
The Charter of Values seeks to ban conspicuous religious symbols. / Government of Quebec
Do you remember the Quebec government’s Charter of Values, the proposed legislation that would bar public workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols — like the kippah, hijab or turban — on the job? Of course you do. Have you been biting your nails over how you’re going to defend it at your upcoming family holiday party? Of course you have. Well, never fear! The Parti Québécois has you covered with its newly released, handy-dandy how-to guide for defending the controversial charter.
The six-page handbook, released just before Christmas, features a turkey on its cover (no doubt because a tree would seem too religious) and is enthusiastically titled “Holiday party answers to your family’s questions!” Because what family isn’t itching to delve into this perfect storm of religion and politics at a time usually spent in eggnog-sipping bliss?
The Parti Québécois knows how much you hate it when your relatives best you at family debates, so this year it’s decided to give you a leg-up over that obnoxious uncle or know-it-all cousin. How? By arming you with rebuttals to every objection they could possibly voice when it comes to the Charter.
Oops — did I say rebuttals? I meant diversions. And fallacies. And diversionary fallacies.
A proposed law that would ban all religious attire from the public sector has Jews in Quebec on edge.
One rabbi has found a clever way to fight the dreaded kippah ban: he stamped his head covering with the blue-and-white Fleur-de-lys — the province’s flag.
“I think protests are great,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath said in an interview with the Forward. “But I thought this would be a great way to make a positive statement. They want to ban the kippah? Let’s put a kippah on our heads!”
Bill 60, named the Charter of Quebec Values and put forward by the nationalist Parti Quebecois, would establish what it has called religious neutrality by banning “conspicuous” and “overt” religious symbols like hijabs, kippahs and turbans, from the public sector.
In Quebec, this includes civil servants, daycare workers, judges, doctors, nurses, and police officers, among others.
Bernath, who works at Chabad in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighborhood, first came up with the idea right after the proposal was announced, when a photoshopped picture of a Fleur-de-lys kippah that he posted on Facebook went viral.
“People kept asking me ‘Are you going to make it?’” Bernath said. Though he had the will, finding the proper fabric was a real challenge.
“I wanted it to be made in Quebec,” he stressed. Ultimately, he found a local kippah-maker and the label reads “Fabrique au Quebec” (made in Quebec).
Bernath’s kippah can be found at qkippah.com for $10. Though the website warns of its limited edition — only 400 have been made so far — the yarmulke has already found a niche of devoted customers. According to Bernath, he sold 100 yesterday, and only has about 80 left.
“I bought 60 and distributed them to my congregation, Rabbi Schachar Orenstein of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue told the Canadian Jewish News. “Many doctors at the Jewish [General Hospital] are wearing them. If I had the budget, I would purchase for the entire hospital staff,” he added. In November, the Montreal Jewish General Hospital said it would defy the Charter, considered “patently discriminatory.”
But for Bernath, the biggest surprise has been the amount of support he has gotten from non-Jews in the community. Because most of the kippahs are purchased online, he is able to keep track of the names of the owners. A lot of them, he said, are not Jewish.
“The uniqueness in Montreal is that everyone lives together,” he said.
To remind Quebec Premier Pauline Marois — who spearheads the push for the Charter — of that legacy, Bernath has sent her a kippah of her own, signed “Happy Hanukkah from the Jewish community!”
The timing is no coincidence. “It’s Hanukkah all over again in a way,” Bernath explained. “In the times of Hanukkah, that’s basically what the Syrian-Greeks said to the Jews. [They were] trying to make everyone into the Syrian-Greeks and that’s what [Marois] is trying to do.”
As many of you have heard, Tania Longpre, the [Parti Quebecois] candidate in the riding of Viau, stated that the word “Jewish” should be removed from the “Jewish General Hospital” and that circumcision should be outlawed.
In a hastily typed response, here is a letter that I sent directly to Mme. Longpre. I think the response matches the comments:
In 1738, a young Catholic man named Jacques La Fargue came to New France. Jacques La Fargue turned out to be Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman who had disguised herself to come to the new world. When she refused to convert, she was sent back to France. Jews were officially allowed to settle in New France beginning in 1760, over 250 years ago. But Esther Brandeau’s were the first Jewish footsteps in what we today call Quebec.
I wonder what Esther Brandeau would make of the current controversy over the Parti Quebecois (PQ) government’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values. The ads in the Montreal metro proclaim, in two starkly-opposing posters: “Church. Synagogue. Mosque. These are sacred,” and, “Religious neutrality of the state. Equality of men and women. These are also sacred.” The self-proclaimed goals of the Charter are to set clear rules on religious accommodations; affirm Quebec values; and establish the religious neutrality of the state. The most controversial aspect of the proposal is the limitation of the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols.” Namely, any employees of the state — which, in Quebec, includes not only public servants but teachers, professors, daycare workers, and doctors — cannot wear a hijab; a turban; a kippah; or a large crucifix. Small religious symbols are acceptable, though exact measurements are not provided. The crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, along with the iconic cross on top of Mount Royal, are exempted as expressions of Quebec’s Catholic heritage.
It would be easy to look at this proposal and laugh; it would be equally easy to cry. But the reality is much more complex. The minority PQ government is trying to rally its base as it comes towards an election with a crumbling infrastructure and a weak economy. It is by no means certain that the government will garner enough votes to pass this legislation, and there is significant opposition among both French-speaking and English-speaking Quebecers. On a deeper level, those outside Quebec may not understand the existential concerns of a French-speaking majority who comprise less than two percent of the population of North America as a whole. Alone in an English-speaking continent, Quebec has a distinct language and culture. For that society to dissolve in the sea of internationalism would be a profound loss.
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.
With his election last Friday, Michael Applebaum has become not only the first non-native French speaker in a century to hold the post. He is also the first-ever Jewish mayor of the second-largest French speaking country in the world.
“It’s definitely a proud day,” Leo Kolber, a businessman, philanthropist, former Canadian senator and lifelong Montrealer, said about Applebaum’s swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 19.
Applebaum, 49, was chosen by a two-vote margin by city councilors after he ran as an independent calling for transparency in government, following the resignation of former mayor Gérald Tremblay. Tremblay resigned earlier this month as a result of revelations made by the Charbonneau Commission exposing widespread corruption among Montreal officials, contractors and members of organized crime.
As Montreal mayor, Applebaum must step down as borough mayor of Cote des Neiges/Notre Dame de Grace, one if the city’s most heavily populated boroughs, and one with a high concentration of Jewish residents. His interim post will last only until municipal elections scheduled for November 3, 2013. Applebaum has stated that he will not seek re-election.
“I see very clearly what people are saying on the street,” Applebaum told The Montreal Gazette. “I am very much a goal-oriented person and I think we have an opportunity,” Applebaum said. “I personally have an opportunity to really make a difference.”