Under the PQ’s newly proposed “Charter Affirming the Values of Secularism” (widely known as the Secularism Charter), the provincial government would ban the display of any “overt” religious headgear by public employees – which would most notably include Muslim hijabs, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes. (As a nod toward nominal religious neutrality, the Bill also would ban large crucifixes displayed on chains. But, as many critics have noted, the PQ failed to take down a large Christian cross adorning the provincial legislature, thereby making nonsense of their evenhanded conceit.) If the bill becomes law in 2014, a huge swathe of workers, including bureaucrats, day-care providers, teachers and medical professionals, will have to decide between publicly expressing their faith and keeping their jobs.
According to the Quebec government, such legislation would help protect Quebec society from religious extremism. But outside of a few scattered anecdotes (one trumped up controversy, for instance, revolved around the desire of a handful of Sikh children to play soccer while wearing their turbans), the urban regions where immigrants live generally are marked by peaceful co-existence. Indeed, it is only since Quebec introduced its Secular Charter in 2013 that racial and religious tensions have worsened.
The Secularism Charter has alienated the province’s immigrants and religious minorities, many of whom now wonder whether they have a future in Quebec. But for ardent separatists, this isn’t seen as a bad thing: Most newcomers to Canada care little for Quebec’s separatist grievances, and can be expected to vote no in any future referendum. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ PQ would likely be happy to see these federalists depart for other jurisdictions – along with the province’s increasingly beleaguered and disenfranchised Anglo minority – thereby leaving Quebec with a more “purified,” French-speaking, pro-sovereigntist Québécois electorate. (By Jonathan Kay, Canada in 2014: Separatist issue looms, on GPS website, December 20, 2013)
While Mr. Kay's analysis of the situation inside Quebec is authentic and warranted, there are some factors that might help to put this situation into a different context. First, the cultural purity argument among Quebec sovereignists is less about not wanting immigrants than it is about poking a finger in the eye of Ottawa, a federal-provincial tension that has helped to shape the country for well over a century. Provincial governments, especially those bent on a different tone and policy flavour from the federal government use the "bash Ottawa" argument to win parochial votes from an electorate that seeks a common enemy. However, given that two referenda have failed inside Quebec, the people of Canada generally have adopted the attitude: "Let them go, if they want to leave! We have had enough of pandering to their demands."
Currently, the federal government is far to the right of the normally left-leaning social policy invoked by the Parti Quebecois's charismatic leader and former premier, Rene Levesque, and even passing a bill acknowledging the "nation" of Quebec, within the Canadian federation, (mostly a pandering, hollow word-game) by the Harper conservatives in Ottawa does not paper over the divide between Ottawa and Quebec city on social policy. Quebec, for example, has the most future oriented policy on maternity and paternity leave, on post-secondary tuitions, on in-vitro fertilization support through their health care system, while Ottawa is attempting to disengage from all discussions on the future of health care, funded by Ottawa while operated by the provinces, by making a blanket announcement on the funding formula without engaging in any level of negotiations with provincial counterparts.
Secondly, the Canadian constitution, including the 1980 Amendment formula would require approval of seven of the ten provinces and a majority of the electorate to approve Quebec separation (really only a nominal divorce, keeping the Canadian currency, passport and defence protection,) while opting out of all other federal-provincial programs and statues. Currently all provinces are responsible for municipal affairs, health care administration, education (Ottawa does make significant funding contributions to the post-secondary phase of education), transportation and consumer protection. Quebec's legal system differs from the British legal system that operates in all other provinces and territories, although there is a federal Criminal Code.
Under a former Liberal administration in Ottawa, the federal government passed a Clarity Act designed to require any Quebec government seeking sovereignty to put an unequivocal and clear proposition before their electorate in any referendum, thereby attempting to close loopholes that could envisage a loose wording that produced results that could later be interpreted as a vote approving "divorce".
So while the rest of the country is more than a little embarrassed and chagrined at the "Secular Values" charter, given that the same ethnicities live and work in all provinces and territories without such a bill and without much rancour or division, there is no evidence that the bill, even if passed in the Quebec legislature, would cause much of a ripple of concern in the rest of the country, even if immigrants to Quebec began to leave and find homes and work elsewhere. In fact such a new labour pool could well enhance the projected labour shortages over the next few decades in Canada as the boomer bubble retires.
Quebec is the most creative, imaginative, literary and culturally sophisticated culture within a country whose primary engine is economic, and Quebec's historic and traditional interest in and efforts to support the human social net, along with its unique linguistic and cultural flavour in its theatre, dance, art and drama points to a highly nuanced and sensitive and generally forward-looking perspective. Most Canadians respect and value Quebec's uniqueness, and seek to retain her many unique contributions to the country. (A majority of former Canadian prime ministers, for example, have Quebec roots, whether coming from the French or the English segment of the Quebec population, while always retaining a bilingual fluency. Both current leaders of the opposition parties are Quebecers and either could become the next prime minister following the next election in 2015.)
It is a long-held perspective of the west (where Harper's government counts on much of its support,)and many of the traditional "anti-Quebec" bigotry camps who point to the silliness, or even the divisiveness of whatever Quebec proposes that seeks to highlight Quebec's mis-steps. (Mr. Kay writes for one of the most staunch English-first papers in Canada, which is also dedicated to the proposition that Harper is the best option for the future of Canada, keeping a shared top priority of the corporate sector and the economic growth of the country while rendering social policy to the back burner, if not completely off the stove.) This was especially evident at the passage of a Quebec law known as "Bill 101" that required all businesses in Quebec to have French "first" signs on their store fronts, complete with a language "police" to enforce the bill. The education of all immigrant children in French language schools in Quebec, for some, has proven an advantage to entering both Quebec and Canadian cultures and citizenship as well as ensuring the continuation of a French education system, part of the long-standing commitment to the French language and culture that has guided Quebec governments of both federalist and sovereignist persuasions.
Let the world not be misguided on the prospective future of Canada that suggests the single most important headline to come from Quebec's sovereignty urges in 2014. With a federal election scheduled in 2015 there will be other issues that dominate public discourse and debate for the next several months. There is a boiling public debate over the environmental impact of the federal government's bullish development of the energy deposits in the tar sands; there is a boiling public debate over the future of organized labour, headed by a federal government that seeks to decimate the labour movement, while Quebec has historically been the heartland for labour support. There is a simmering public debate, likely to morph into a "boil," over the historic treatment by the federal government of the First Nations communities across the country. And there will be a strong public debate over the international trade "deals" that Ottawa is attempting to negotiate with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which threaten the "independence" of Canadian companies if and when the trading partners use the option of suing those companies in the event of a dispute, a provision to which many Canadians are solidly opposed. Harper has also made Arctic sovereignty a priority of his next administration, and there will likely be considerable public discourse on both pro and anti sides on that complex and still unmapped issue.
If the people in the rest of Canada (outside Quebec) were asked about how big a priority they would consider the Secular Values bill before the Quebec legislature, many would not even know about it, and most would not be even modestly interested or concerned. And while that may change, it will take a public event of such magnitude that it is hard to envisage such an event on the Canadian horizon.