News  McGill professors react to Quebec’s Charter of Values

Professors criticize Charter’s move to ban religious symbols for public workers

As Quebec unveiled its newly-proposed and highly controversial Charter of Values this week, McGill professors have voiced serious concern with the Charter, and plan to stage demonstrations against the proposed plan in the upcoming week.

On September 10, the Parti Québécois (PQ) revealed its Charter of Quebec Values, which would amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to ban the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by public-sector employees, with the exception of small pieces of jewelry.

Along with judges, police, prosecutors, public daycare workers, teachers, school employees, hospital workers and municipal personnel, university employees might be affected by the proposed charter – though universities have the option to “opt out” of the requirements, subject to renewal every five years.

Notably, in an interview with the McGill Tribune on September 12, new principal Suzanne Fortier neglected to say whether McGill would opt out of the Charter’s requirements.

Political Science professor Catherine Lu is among many McGill professors who are concerned with the proposed Charter. She also noted the futility of the opt-out option.

“McGill should not opt out, in the case that the Charter is passed,” she said. “By opting out or asking for an exemption, one is fating others to still an injustice. It makes us complicit in enabling the injustice.”

“A liberal democratic society should respect individuals’ fundamental freedoms and right to expression of religion,” she continued.

On the same day that the Charter was unveiled, Lu and Professor Marie-Joëlle Zahar of the Université de Montréal sent out a letter to their colleagues “calling on all educators and members of the public service to reflect on the fundamentally unjust, incoherent, self-defeating and dangerous nature of the proposed Charter.”

Lu and Zahar’s initiative calls for all educators to adopt and wear visible religious symbols of their choosing in classes and lectures during a Week of Action, starting on September 12.

Some professors participating in the Week of Action noted a perceived unconstitutional or discriminatory undercurrent behind the Charter.

“I think it is a form of institutionalized discrimination that essentially prohibits entire groups of people – those whose religious beliefs involve visible symbolism like a turban, kippa, or hijab – from employment in the public sector,” said Political Science professor Rex Brynen in an e-mail to The Daily. Brynen said that he will be participating in the Week of Action.

“I am vehemently opposed to it, as I think is the overwhelming majority of the McGill community,” continued Brynen.

Others pointed to the need for privacy from an overbearing state.

“I don’t think it’s a matter where I should be reporting directly to a department of the provincial government. That really chills me,” said Religious Studies professor Ian Henderson.

Ellen Aitken, Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, says that the purpose behind the Charter is to further a policy of “narrow secularization” of Quebec, by excluding religion completely from the public sphere.

“This should be contrasted with a rich secularism in which a plurality of religious traditions are valued as a part of the pluralism of the state, but where the state is not aligned or supportive of any single religious tradition,” Aitken said in an interview with The Daily.

Others echoed the need to recognize a diversity of faiths, traditions, and beliefs across the population.

“I could look at it and say, I don’t think it makes much of a difference for me, if I don’t wear visible symbols. […] But if I love my neighbours as myself, I want them to have a reasonable chance to have a pious, faithful life as they would understand it,” said Religious Studies lecturer Jon Waind.

“It is unclear to me whether I am a government employee,” Henderson later said. “I have never thought of myself, until this week, as an employee of the state who reports to the state about my individual dress habits.  If it has come to that, what else do I report to the state?”