Montreal Gazette: Values charter deals with a problem that doesn’t exist, symposium told

For a practising Sikh, “the turban is central,” said panellist Mukhbir Singh, vice-president for Quebec and Atlantic Canada of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. Asking him to remove his turban is “tantamount to asking a Sikh to do something completely against his belief.”

http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Values+charter+deals+with+problem+that+doesn+exist/9058721/story.html

Protesters march along Ste-Catherine St. as they take part in a demonstration denouncing the proposed Charter of Quebec Values in Montreal on Sunday Oct. 20, 2013.

Photograph by: Allen McInnis , Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL — The proposed Charter of Quebec Values addresses a problem that doesn’t exist and shows no signs of appearing, McGill University law professor Daniel Weinstock told a public symposium Sunday on the Parti Québécois’s controversial plan.

“There is no evidence of the problem to which this fairly extreme set of responses has been developed,” he said, And yet, two months after it was introduced, the charter proposal still has “legs,” he said.

The charter, which outlines the Parti Québécois vision of a secular state, would bar public-sector workers from wearing religious garb, such as the Muslim hijab, the Jewish kippah or the Sikh turban, while at work.

Weinstock suggested that support continues because of what he called “a very strange unholy alliance” among members of three disparate groups: those who believe that Quebec has not completed its transformation into a completely secular — here he used the word “laïque” — state, another representing some feminist circles and another some nationalists.

However, deep fissures are beginning to appear within each of these constituencies and he is confident that these “fault lines and fissures” will erode support for the proposed charter, he said.

As people were gathering for the event, opponents of the charter took part in a march in downtown Montreal.

Weinstock was one of six academics and faith leaders who were panellists at the symposium, hosted by Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in collaboration with the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, theChristian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. About 325 people attended the event, which took place in the main sanctuary of the Westmount synagogue, and there was ample time for questions and audience participation.

Several panellists and audience members expressed concern that the proposed charter would creative negative feelings toward minority faith groups.

“Holocaust survivors are wondering whether society is becoming more closed, whether one’s values are being judged by how one practises one’s faith,” said MHMC director Alice Herscovitch.

Another audience member, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, suggested that the proposed charter is “driven by fear — fear of difference.”

Weinstock observed that the “elephant in the room” regarding the proposed Charter of Quebec values is Islamophobia.

“Islamophobia is at the base of this,” he said. “I see my female student wearing veils. And I feel for them because they are being targeted at the moment.”

He said that Jews must support them. “If there is a lesson, it is that we have to stand with the people who are under the gaze of injustice. We have to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, observed that the exhortation to welcome and protect the stranger in one’s midst is repeated often in the Torah.

Panellist Leila Bedeir of the Collective des féministes musulmanes du Québec said there are Muslims who feel they will be accepted in Quebec only if “they erase who they are.”

“We are accused of trying to ‘Islamicize’ institutions,” she said. “People are afraid they won’t find work.”

A professor at Vanier College, Bedeir was one of more than 40 women who signed a letter of protest against the proposed charter that appeared in Le Devoir in September. “As women and feminists, we believe in equality in diversity,” it said in part. “We believe that the integrity of Quebec is not threatened by the presence of religious symbols on its territory.”

For a practising Sikh, “the turban is central,” said panellist Mukhbir Singh, vice-president for Quebec and Atlantic Canada of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. Asking him to remove his turban is “tantamount to asking a Sikh to do something completely against his belief.”

Victor Goldbloom, a former Quebec cabinet minister and a past president of the temple, told the symposium, “When I put on my kippah, I do not become less objective; I do not become less fair; I do not become less Québécois.”

A plan like the proposed charter “should be brought in by broad consensus” only, he said — and such a consensus does not exist.

sschwartz@montrealgazette.com