By Kalina Laframboise
CUP Quebec Bureau Chief
MONTREAL (CUP) — The Parti Québécois’ proposed Charter of Values aimed at separating church and state is raising concern in post-secondary institutions across Quebec.
The controversial project announced on Tuesday would prohibit government employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols — such as turbans, hijabs, crucifixes and kippahs — and time off for religious holidays. Educational institutions and hospitals could apply to opt out of these conditions but a ban on veils that cover the face would be permanent.
The law would also amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to provide an outline on accommodation requests.
However, the bill would not affect members of the National Assembly and would allow politicians to wear religious symbols if they choose. Furthermore, the crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly and the cross on Mount Royal in Montreal would remain in place as Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville clarified it to be part of Quebec’s history.
The law would extend to all public sector workers including judges, police officers, teachers, daycare workers and municipal personnel in what the provincial government deems an effort to “maintain social peace and promote harmony” and to “prevent tensions from growing.”
Universities are refraining from commenting for now.
“We have taken no position yet,” said Concordia University Spokesperson Chris Mota. “We are assessing the proposal.”
Jenny Desrochers, director of media relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal, also confirmed that UQÀM has not taken a position.
However, the proposal led to a massive protest in the downtown core of Montreal Saturday afternoon and spawned a petition for an inclusive Quebec that drew the support of post-secondary teachers and students across the province.
John Aspler, a graduate student studying neuroscience at McGill University, attended the protest because he was concerned with the ramifications of a charter.
“I protested today because this law impacts women far more than it impacts men, making it sexist. It impacts ethnic and religious minorities as well as immigrants far more than it impacts white Christians, making it racist and discriminatory.” said Aspler. “Christians generally won’t be affected by this legislation.”
Aspler feels that the Quebec Charter of Values acts as a “hypocrisy of the highest order.”
“The charter doesn’t level the playing field, it ensures that a whole segment of society leaves the public eye,” added Aspler.
Avi Goldberg, a sociology professor at Vanier College and Concordia University in Montreal, says he addressed the issue in the classroom at Vanier with his students where he encouraged young adults to discuss the proposal.
“One student said all kinds of professionals in this province who are getting degrees and might be religious,” said Goldberg. “But they are being told they are not allowed to be themselves.”
Goldberg explained that the law “will certainly affect anyone who is teaching at university or CÉGEP in one way or another,” and is concerned it may impede students who wear religious symbols to pursue employment in the public sector since they may not feel welcome.
“Maybe there’s a lack of belief that one can be religious in their home, minds and heart, and at the same time do a job that they are able to do and serve the laws of the public,” said Goldberg. “But I think that’s possible.”
Goldberg is not the only one to foster a discussion in the classroom. Ashley Davis, a student studying arts at Dawson College, admits that one of her teachers openly criticizes the Quebec Charter of Values in class and through social media.
“He’s pretty vocal about it. It’s interesting, because while he himself is secular, he’s culturally tied to a specific faith,” said Davis. “And it seems as though he’s really pushing for people to look at this as an issue of freedom rather than integration.”
Lorenzo DiTommaso, the chair of the department of religion at Concordia University, believes that the department could manage if the Charter of Values becomes law and that it would not affect the courses offered.
“The thing is this: would it have an impact on our courses? No,” said DiTommaso. “We set our courses on the basis of our program needs. I don’t see how this law can affect the courses being offered.”
DiTommaso continued to say that he hopes religious holidays will not be affected by the Charter but that the department could find ways to work around it by setting their own schedules or employing a graduate student or teaching assistant to replace the professor on the date of the holiday.