Should Quebec become more secular? Residents vote today.

The separatist Parti Québécois seeks a mandate to pass a bill that would ban hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans in public buildings – a goal that clashes with Canadian multiculturalism.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP
People wait in line to vote at a polling station in Montreal today in Quebec. Quebec's main separatist party faces a tough challenge of its own making Monday as polls opened in elections that revived the debate on whether the French-speaking province should break away from Canada. That possibility now seems far off, with the Parti Québécois facing a backlash over the renewed talk of independence, an idea that has enjoyed little support in recent years.

Quebec residents go to the polls today effectively to decide whether the independence-minded Canadian province should break spiritually, if not politically, from the rest of the country – by forbidding religious symbols from the public service.

The primary issue in today's provincial election, one of the most divisive in years, is whether the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) can win a majority of seats in Quebec's parliament. It currently heads a minority government. But the deeper significance hinges on its "Charter of Values," a bill that would ban hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans from all hospitals, schools, day cares, and public buildings, both for staff and citizens.

Though popular in Quebec, the bill is seen by the rest of the country as a shocking attack on religious expression and the multiculturalism that Canada has embraced. If PQ comes to power and enacts the bill, it could solidify Quebec's secular values – but observers say it could also fuel intolerance.

“It hoists a vision of secular society, forging an identity which Quebecers can rally around,” says Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at Montreal's McGill University. “That identity will be very much be at odds with Canadian values of multiculturalism, of religious freedom being entrenched and protected.”

Official secularism

The charter, a cornerstone of PQ's election campaign, follows a tradition of official secularism dating back to the 1960s.

Compared with the rest of Canada, Quebec remained underdeveloped after World War II. The Catholic Church had run most hospitals and schools since the colonial era. French-speaking men earned on average half of their English-speaking counterparts.

Then in 1960, a new government combined rapid industrialization with secular reforms. Known as the Quiet Revolution, the reforms put an emphasis on French, modernized industry, and brought women into the workforce. Religious practice plummeted, while yearnings for a separate country spread among intellectuals and organized labor.

As Canada embraced mass immigration in the ‘70s and signed multiculturalism into its constitution in 1982, Quebec asserted its secular principles, and implemented a restrictive law prioritizing French.

Quebec has struggled to accommodate diversity in recent years. In 2007, a Montreal gym shaded its windows after a nearby Orthodox synagogue complained about immodest women, while a small village banned a list of "immigrant" practices that critics said were based on racial stereotypes.

“There’s been a decade of soul-searching here in Quebec about how to balance the integration of new immigrants with a set of core values,” says Professor Maioni.

Identity and sovereignty

To that end, the province ordered a commission on what is known in Quebec as “reasonable accommodation”: finding compromises for religious groups while maintaining a secular state. Two academics heard hundreds of testimonies before issuing their recommendations, which included prohibiting legal authorities from wearing religious signs, but not public servants and students.

The PQ's proposed charter would prioritize the values of the secular state. The party argues that it is necessary to spell out social mores. “It’s important to say what will be the rules for behavior in our society,” said Premier Pauline Marois, echoing the proponents of France's 2011 niqab ban.

Polls show that 60 percent of Quebecers support the secular charter. But it has also provoked confusion and outrage in the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Muslim groups report an increase in hate crimes, including women having their hijabs ripped off in public.

However, PQ's campaign has stumbled over its long-standing pro-independence agenda, a far more controversial topic. The province has held two referendums on independence; both were rejected. In 1995, the proposal failed with 49.5 percent. As the result was announced, separatist Premier Jacques Parizeau famously told supporters on live television they had lost the vote because of “money and ethnic votes.”

“That gave quite bad press to the [separatist] movement,” says Michel Ducharme, a University of British Columbia professor specializing in Quebec history. “The Parti Québécois tried to erase any sign of ethnic nationalism in its discourse, and tried to promote a civic understanding of what it means to be Québécois.”

Pre-election polls pointed to a setback for the charter's backers: the Quebec Liberal party — which staunchly supports staying in Canada — is forecast to gain 37 percent of votes, beating the PQ into second place. 

For the rest of Canada, this is just the latest example of Quebec being out of step with the other provinces.

“In their daily lives, most Quebecers see themselves as Québécois,” Prof. Ducharme says. “Their relationship with the state is primarily with the province.”

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