Wednesday 11 September 2013

A New Quebec Value: Discrimination against Religious Minorities

A new Quebec Value: Discrimination against Minority Religious Groups
Yesterday (September 10, 2013) the government of Quebec (Canada) released its controversial “Charter of Quebec Values.” The political party in power in Quebec is a minority nationalist one, the Parti Québecois. According to numerous news reports (I can’t find the actual Charter on the Internet yet) this Charter is a statement of “values” that will ostensibly entrench religious neutrality in Quebec by prohibiting either providers or seekers of government services from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as hijabs (headscarves for female Muslims), turbans (for male Sikhs), and kippas (skullcaps for male Jews). As a sop to neutrality, Christians will also be prohibited from wearing large, conspicuous crosses. Small (discrete) crosses for Christians, and Stars of David (for Jews) will be allowed.  So if you live in Quebec and wear such symbols, get out your measuring tape!
Premier of Quebec Pauline Marois
One could of course ask, what business does government have proclaiming the “values” of its entire population? In democracies, citizens are supposed to have the right to whatever values they please. Sometimes they may not be permitted to act on those values, if they are against the law.  For example, some people may hate Sikhs, Jews, or Muslims, but they can’t refuse to hire them. But wait a minute, they will be able to do so in Quebec! If you are in the government in Quebec, even if you don’t hate Sikhs, Jews, or Muslims; even if in fact you rather like them, or are one yourself, you won’t be permitted to hire them for any kind of government job if they wear turbans, kippas, or hijabs.
Even more ridiculous, Sikh women and Muslim men will be okay, as most Sikh women don’t wear turbans and Muslim men don’t wear hijab (though some wear a small religious skull-cap, much like some Jewish men). Religious Jewish women may be okay as well: some married Jewish women wear wigs or hats, but hats appear not to be banned by the new Charter. So far beards aren’t banned either. Some Muslim and Jewish men wear long beards (so do some Amish and Mennonite men, but I don’t know if any of them live in Quebec) so if they are banned in the public service the problem will be, do you wear a beard because you are religious, or because you just don’t like to shave? If the latter, can you get a certificate to that effect?
These new rules even apply to government services such as day care. God forbid (sorry, the new value is secularism, so God shouldn’t really enter into this, unless he is Catholic: see below) that a child should have a kind, loving, carer who wears a hijab. Everywhere else in Canada, if you are a parent and your child asks why her carer or teacher wears a head-scarf, you could just say, because she is a Muslim. The child could then say, “Oh,” and ask for a cookie.  But now in Quebec when your kind, loving, day-care worker disappears because she’s been fired for wearing a hijab, you will have to say to your child, “because our government thinks it is wrong for her to care for you.” 
I’m all for separation of church and state, having been a victim of religious discrimination myself in Quebec a long time ago. When my parents brought me to Quebec from Europe as a young child, I was bilingual: we had been living in Belgium and I had learned to speak English in my home and French elsewhere. My father, a multilingual European, wanted to register me and my sister in French schools, but they wouldn’t accept us because we were not Catholic. My father would have had to pay fees for us, which he couldn’t afford, so we went to English schools.
This didn’t only happen to me. A friend from France had to attend English schools because he wasn’t Catholic: his mother was Jewish. A friend whose parents were from Italy and who learned French on the street was kicked out of French schools because he wasn’t Québecois (a person of French and Catholic ancestry) but the son of immigrants, and had to go to English Catholic schools instead.  (The education system in Quebec until fairly recently was confessional: there were French Catholic Schools, English Catholic schools, and Protestant schools; the latter attended by Protestant Protestants, Jewish Protestants, Muslim Protestants, etc). This went on until Bill 101, mandating that all immigrants must attend French schools, was passed in 1977, finally ending state-sanctioned religious discrimination in Quebec.
But the new Charter doesn’t advance separation of church and state: it discriminates against minority religious groups. The government of Quebec is claiming there’s a social problem where there is none. It seems to think wearing a religious symbol is the same as proselytization, trying to convert someone to your religion. It isn’t. Maybe what’s really going on in Quebec, as some commentators think, is that the Parti Quebécois is trying to play to the basest instincts of some sectors of the population, in order to get votes in the next election.
Meantime, probably so that the same people, of French and Catholic background, will vote for the Parti Québecois in the next election, the government has proclaimed that the Crucifix (a symbol of Roman Catholicism) hanging in the National Assembly, the provincial legislature, will remain. So, according to the September 11 Toronto Globe and Mail, will thousands of crucifixes that already exist in public buildings. Apparently this is part of Quebec “culture,” implying that the Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews who live in Quebec are not part of that culture. Perhaps they are just add-ons, superfluous groups who annoy “real” Québecois by insisting on reminding them that it’s okay to live in Quebec even if you aren’t French/Catholic (or at least, it used to be okay).
One thing’s for sure: there’s going to be a migration of professionals—especially doctors—from Quebec.  Doctors are a mobile group and there are a lot of places in Canada and the US where they can practice while wearing turbans, hijabs, or kippas. This is a shame for the people of Quebec, where there is already a severe shortage of doctors.  The five-year grace period that the Quebec government proposes for people to adapt to this new “secular” (but actually Catholic) Charter of Values will give all these people time to arrange for their migration.  

September 11, 2013: 40th Anniversary of the Chilean Coup

September 11: 40th Anniversary of the Chilean Coup
Today is September 11th, the day most North Americans will think of as the 12th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York City (and on the Pentagon). But it is also the 40th anniversary of the right-wing coup d’état in Chile.
Salvador Allende- Wikipedia Commons
In 1970 Salvador Allende, a socialist, was elected President of Chile, a country with a long-standing democratic tradition. One of his policies was nationalization of mineral and other industries, including property owned by foreign investors. This didn’t sit well with members of Chile’s political right, or with the Americans—or Canadians, for that matter. On September 11, 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup lead by General Augusto Pinochet.  An extended period of severe repression followed. At least 2,200 people were murdered and 30,000 more were tortured (for a fictional representation of this event, see the 1982 movie, Missing, directed by Costa-Gravas).
The coup in Chile and the subsequent (1976) coup in Argentina contributed to the delineation of a new crime, “disappearances.” The army and police would “disappear” people, taking them away from their home in the middle of the night, torturing them to death, dumping their bodies from helicopters into the ocean. Families would not know what had happened to their loved ones; even now, 40 years later, some families are still trying to find out. Pinochet remained in power until 1990.

Chilean National Stadium as a prison camp- Wikipedia Commons

The Chilean coup had one positive result for international law. In 1998 Augusto Pinochet, no longer President, visited Britain. A Spanish judge, Baltasar Garžon, tried to have him arrested under the principal of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, including torture. Although Pinochet hadn’t personally engaged in such crimes, he had certainly been responsible for them. Britain had signed the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture; its signature went into effect in 1988. So the British Law Lords ruled that Pinochet could be tried for crimes that he had committed between 1988 and 1990. He was never tried though, as the British released him on grounds of ill health, from which he miraculously recovered when he returned to Chile. (For more on this, see Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, The New Press, 1999, chapter 10).

Pinochet- Wikipedia Commons

I am not saying Allende was an angel, nor do I know enough about how he nationalized property to judge whether he conformed to the international law that owners are entitled to fair compensation when their property is confiscated. But he was elected democratically.
We might think about the Chilean example when we consider Egypt now. Allende wasn’t like Mohamed Morsi, the recently ousted President of Egypt. Morsi, who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, was showing signs of undermining basic democratic principles. There was a real danger that the new “democracy” following the 2011 uprising against the almost 30-year reign of the dictator Hosni Mubarak was going to be of the “one man, one vote, once” variety. But as in Chile, the new military rulers in Egypt have been using force—murder and torture—against their opponents. They have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and are busy rounding up its leaders.  I don’t know what to do about political parties that come to power democratically yet don’t respect democratic principles. I do know that murder and torture are illegal under any circumstances.