Montreal Gazette: Secularism charter would permit institutions to opt out

Balpreet Singh, a spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said his community has not been consulted either. “With so many other issues facing Quebecers, we’re not sure why picking on minorities is at the top of the PQ’s list,” he said. “With serious problems with respect to employment, with respect to health care and services, we would have thought that the reasonable thing to do would have been to be more welcoming and open. But it seems that the PQ wants to drive people away, which is just confusing,” Singh said.

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Secularism+charter+would+permit+institutions/8823011/story.html

MONTREAL — Quebec’s proposed secularism charter would allow hospitals and other publicly funded institutions to opt out of a province-wide ban on religious garb for public employees, The Gazette has learned.

Bernard Drainville, the minister for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, told Jewish-community representatives this week his government will give hospitals, CEGEPs, universities and other institutions the option of seeking an exemption from the charter.

“I think what they’re looking toward is an opting-out clause, basically throwing on the laps of the board of directors of each hospital the onus of dealing with this issue,” said Luciano Del Negro, Quebec vice-president of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), who met with Drainville Tuesday.

Far from making the proposed charter more acceptable, the idea of involving institutions in the secularism debate raises the spectre of bitter controversies and administrative chaos, Del Negro said.

“To put it quite frankly, it would be incredibly difficult. It’s going to throw in the lap of these organizations the whole debate. It’s a recipe for a very divisive debate. It’s going to consume us, when I think most Quebecers are interested in the economy,” he said.

The Parti Québécois government confirmed Thursday it will press ahead this fall with its charter of secularism, details of which were leaked to the Journal de Montréal.

The newspaper reported Tuesday the charter will include a sweeping ban on religious symbols in the public sphere, including government offices, police stations, courtrooms, daycare centres, schools, CEGEPs, universities and hospitals. It would mean no employee could wear a turban, kippa (Jewish skullcap), hijab (Muslim kerchief), niqabs (face veil) or ostentatious cross. (A discreet crucifix would be permitted.)

However, the crucifix in the National Assembly and cross on Mount Royal would stay put because they are considered part of Quebec’s heritage.

Del Negro said that while Jewish-community organizations support the separation of church and state, barring people of certain faiths from the public sector is discriminatory.

“It would exclude automatically certain people from exercising (their profession),” he said.

“The Jewish community has been in Quebec for 250 years. All of a sudden we’re told, if you’re a religious Jew and you’re wearing a kippa, you would not be able to occupy the position of judge, crown prosecutor, police officer or prison guard,” he said.

Human-rights lawyer Julius Grey, who also opposes the charter, said allowing some institutions to opt out of it would heighten divisions.

“I think there’s a serious problem with exemptions,” he said.

Grey predicted that English-language institutions, such as McGill and Concordia universities, would be more likely to apply for exemptions than French-language ones. “And the result would be to lessen the integration of those minorities with the French universities, which would be a pity,” he said.

The same would apply to hospitals, with minorities flocking to health-care centres that opted out of the charter.

“What you’d find is that certain clienteles might be limited to certain hospitals,” Grey said.

The charter would also create greater divisions within the province’s school system, Grey said. “Since the public school boards would not be exempt, you’d have a proliferation of private schools and private institutions and thus you would integrate less well,” he said.

The Journal de Montréal reported Tuesday that institutions of higher learning and “confessional” hospitals like the Jewish General Hospital could seek an exemption from the charter.

But Del Negro said Drainville indicated during the meeting that any hospital could opt out of the charter.

“It’s not only for the Jewish (General Hospital) but for all educational institutions, from what we gleaned from what they were saying, and likewise for hospitals,” he said.

During the meeting, CIJA Quebec chair Eric Maldoff said that “while the Jewish community supports the principle of state neutrality in religious matters, banning religious symbols from the public and parapublic sectors goes too far,” CIJA stated in a news release.

David Ouellette, CIJA-Quebec’s public affairs director, said the charter assumes wrongly that people who wear religious symbols cannot be neutral.

“You can be a perfect religious bigot and not wear any religious signs,” he said.

“Neutrality is a state of mind: it’s not a matter of clothing,” Ouellette added.

B’nai Brith Canada also met Drainville Monday and raised objections to the charter.

Drainville’s press secretary, Marcel Dionne, refused to provide any details on the proposed charter or reveal what was said at the meeting with CIJA.

He said Drainville has met with several representatives of both the Jewish and Muslim communities in the past week.

However, Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said Muslims have not been consulted.

“We have not had any meetings with them and we have been totally bypassed and ignored,” he said.

Elmenyawi said his community strongly opposes the proposed charter.

“Targeting specifically the Muslim community with this kind of charter is unacceptable because it creates divisions within the community and it always creates backlash against the Muslim community,” he said.

He added that to date, dialogue between the Parti Québécois and the Muslim organizations has been nonexistent.

“This government since it came we have had no communication with them. They always talk about Muslims but they never communicate to us. They ignore us,” he said.

Balpreet Singh, a spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said his community has not been consulted either.

“With so many other issues facing Quebecers, we’re not sure why picking on minorities is at the top of the PQ’s list,” he said.

“With serious problems with respect to employment, with respect to health care and services, we would have thought that the reasonable thing to do would have been to be more welcoming and open. But it seems that the PQ wants to drive people away, which is just confusing,” Singh said.

Lionel Perez, mayor of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, also met with Drainville to express misgivings on the charter.

Perez, who wrote an opinion piece in Le Devoir Thursday calling for a more inclusive approach to minorities, said Drainville was receptive. “He told me it was a work in progress,” he said.

Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, said the fact the government is prepared to negotiate exemptions to the charter shows it realizes the charter is discriminatory. “You’ve already decided it’s a violation of fundamental rights,” he said.

Grey said the charter offers no benefits.

“I cannot see the downside without this charter. What would be the downside? That there would be a bus driver with a turban or a teacher with a kerchief?” he said.

“I do not see any legitimate loss that will happen if we don’t adopt this. It wouldn’t help the unemployed. It wouldn’t preserve French. It wouldn’t increase freedom. There would be no one who could say I’ve gained something from this.”

mascot@montrealgazette.com