“Equality, dignity, respect, pluralism,” opened Shirley Sarna, the Education-Cooperation coordinator for the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission. The venue: Atwater Library & Computer Centre. The topic: Quebec, Minorities, and Human Rights. The ominous cloud floating over the panel was the imminent Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québécois (PQ) earlier this month. The event was organized by The Silk Road Institute, in collaboration with the Political Science Student’s Association of Concordia.
“Quebec is home to 600 different religions,” Sarna continued, a fact barely a handful of citizens currently residing within the province – one that supposedly celebrates pluralism – probably know. Freedom of Religion makes up Article Three of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights. In light of that fact, Sarna highlighted that forcing someone to make their religion private holds no legal ground – a simple but resounding statement that could mean the proposed Charter of Values could get the axe if presented in a court of law. Going further, Section 43 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights states, “People belonging to ethnic minorities have the right to develop and promote their culture…” Obviously, the PQ needs a better legal consultant. Their proposed charter would, according to Sarna, be impossible to implement in light of the Charter of Human Rights, which takes precedence over all other laws in Quebec. The way things are phrased in government and the media counts as well; as Sarna put it, calling an ethnic entity a “cultural community” instead of a “minority” devoids it of any rights it may lay claim to.
For the Rights Commission, discrimination is an all-too-familiar foe that has yet to be defeated. The Commission has collaborated with the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal on cases of racial profiling (they have admitted this, and proposed a five year plan of action to eradicate this discriminatory practice on behalf of its officials). The Commission also released a report stating that foreign doctors trained in Quebec are being turned away on the basis of ethnicity, even though Quebec severely lacks healthcare professionals. It also denounces the three month waiting period immigrants have to sit through in order to obtain proper healthcare coverage. The Commission has also uncovered findings that suggest visible and ethnic minorities are not being hired by Quebec corporations and businesses; the employment equity program (which monitors the employment of “visible and ethnic minorities, women, first nations, and people with disabilities”) in Quebec is nothing short of a disaster in need of serious reform. Sarna also could not help but highlight how inaccessible Montreal is when it comes to non-able bodied citizens.
But there are clearly limits to how much the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission can accomplish. When asked by The Daily about what the Commission’s stance is on Bill 35 and the general infringement on trans* rights, Sarna could only conclude that trans* rights are the next platform of discussion. She ended on an advisory note, in a tone that would suggest not following her advice would only lead to further discriminations, “The best way to ensure human rights is by creating an informed citizenry […] this is not the society we are hoping to create…and not the future that I hope to promote.”
Ihsaan Gardee, the Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (formerly CAIR-CAN), opened his piece with a joke, a refreshing icebreaker to a scarce audience that welcomed him with dispersed laughs. His segment touched upon how the Quebec Charter of Values will impact minorities in the province; he likened the possible aftermath of the Charter to a ripple effect. “The effects of this Charter will occur at the micro level,” Gradee stated; that of the individual sphere, the lives of the people involved, and their interpersonal relationships. It will also occur on the “macro level,” that of the Quebec socio-economic sector. Jobs will probably turn away possible applicants, fire current employees, and migration and immigration to Quebec will go from rivers of potential immigrants, to streams of them, with the ever looming possibility of an immigration drought. “Quebec has witnessed net losses in migration,” Gardee claimed.
His spiel centered around putting the debate on the Charter within a historical context. He mentioned the Quiet Revolution in Quebec as inciting the ongoing stigma of any form of religion spilling into government practice, policy, and institution. “This debate parallels [that] of the hijab in France,” he declared; albeit that debate is one laden with scapegoat excuses like secularism, French supremacy, and nationalism. In Gardee’s words, “The state should not be in the business of deciding what is a bona fide religion, provided this religion does not infringe on other people’s rights.”
The Daily asked Gardee the tough question of whether this Charter is fueled by internalized anti-semitism and Islamophobia, to which Gardee replied that the government has specifically said that it is not. His argument, though, is that the Charter’s wording makes it sound anti-semitic and Islamophobic, about which we can only speculate.
In more surprising news, according to a recent Léger-Le Devoir poll, as reported by CTV Montreal news, the PQ gained five points in popularity since June, up 32 per cent, a close contender with Parti Libéral Québécois popularity at 36 per cent. It is also even more popular among francophones after the reported leak of the news on the Charter of Values.
The impact of the Charter? The potential to foster fear and exclusion, green-light further physical and emotional discrimination of religious minorities, and, in Sarna’s opinion, incite people with religious prejudices to freely act on their prejudices. The basics of what is happening, Gardee asserted, is a “forced homogenization from the top-down” of a province inherently afraid of losing its heritage and core identity when so many new cultures and identities are being poured into the melange every day. The fact is, the PQ are in denial, and, as Gardee reiterated, “Quebec is in desperate need of immigrants.”