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Quebec teachers in solidarity against the "Values Charter"

Chantal Sundaram

September 9, 2013

Since debate over the Parti Quebecois’ “Values Charter” exploded in late August, over the banning of "ostentatious religious symbols," a number of developments have confirmed the real threat this legislation poses--but also the potential for solidarity and resistance.
First, the right-wing opposition party CAQ revealed their support for the essentials of the charter, in particular the notion of banning teachers in primary and secondary schools from wearing religious symbols due to their status as role models and their position of authority in relation to minors. But the real impact of the Charter is not to support students, but to encourage racists. In practice the main target of the charter is Muslim women, as is clear from the racist response.
On the night of August 31, while the debate raged, a mosque in the town of Chicoutimi in the rural region of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean was doused in pig’s blood with a racist letter left at the scene: “You come here to our country to escape dictatorship, war, violence, hatred and death…why do you come to our country only to try to change it in the image of the country that you escaped? Leave your hijab, niqab, burqa, sharia, forget your primitive demands…integrate or go home. Enough! This mosque is baptized with the blood of fresh pork of Quebec!”
On the same day, a Muslim youth conference in Montreal was cancelled by the city’s largest convention centre for "security reasons" after drawing criticism from the PQ over four speakers invited from France. Although it was held anyway at a nearby mosque, the expected 1,000-2,000 participants were reduced to 100. The PQ even asked the federal government to weigh in by banning some of the speakers.
The “Values Charter” is an obvious attempt to scapegoat Muslims and immigrants more generally, and to distract the Quebec population from the forward march of neoliberal destruction initiated by the Quebec Liberals and carried on seamlessly by the PQ. As they continue to undermine public funding for healthcare and education, they target public sector workers. And racist elements in Quebec society take the PQ actions as an excuse for their attacks on mosques.
This is a repeat of the same strategy used in France in the late 1990’s, and again in 2004, when women wearing hijab were banned from public schools. This came on the heels of a massive strike by French teachers, a militancy which the French government needed to quell. The hijab debate was unfortunately effective in dividing French teachers’ unions--and has since escalated to banning from all public spaces Muslim women wearing niqab, and banning mothers wearing hijab from participating in their children's school activities. Under the guise of "secularism" and "protecting women", the French state is driving Muslim women out of public spaces, educational and employment opportunities, and distracting from austerity and military interventions.
There is an additional dynamic in Quebec, where the "Values Charter" highjacks legitimate desires for self-determination  and turns them against immigrants instead of the Canadian state. Canada is built on colonizing indigenous land and oppressing Quebec--including supporting the elite and the Catholic church in Quebec. The Quebec minister who authored the “Values Charter”, Bernard Drainville,  was quoted as saying “The best way to respect the religious rights of all is to assure that the state has no religion.” This is absolutely true. But we live in a society in which the “neutrality” of the state is itself a myth, whether it comes to religion or to whose material interests it serves. The charter is not neutral--attacking "ostentatious religious symbols" like the hijab, turban or kippah, but not small crosses. Meanwhile the massive cross that hangs in the Quebec legislature is but a reminder of the fact that all notions of law and justice in Western society flow from a Judeo-Christian culture (although many of its precepts actually originate in variants of Islamic law). A truly secular state would put into question what “neutrality” really means.    
The Canadian state and corporate media continue to propagate the myth of the Quebecois as being uniquely racist, due to their legitimate desire for self-determination, and of English Canada being multicultural. This is laid bare by the Harper government's racist immigration policy and ongoing colonial and militaristic policies, and by the Quebec Liberal's own track record. Although the Quebec government under the Liberals in 2007 commissioned a report on religious accommodation, and the resulting Bouchard-Taylor report produced a number of recommendations that respected freedom of religion, accommodation, and multiculturalism, most have not been addressed. So, although the opposition Liberals cloak their opposition to the PQ charter in colours of support for accommodation, their own track record is no better. Despite the xenophobia and Islamophobia of the PQ and the equally opportunistic Quebec-bashing by federalists inside and outside Quebec, the fact remains that the debate inside Quebec over the charter is as complex and contradictory as the debate over secularism has been throughout the Western world since 9/11.
Solidarity and resistance
This is not a debate about secularization. It is a debate about Islamophobia, racism, and the solidarity needed to resist the dismantling of the public sector by those who will resort to any means to accomplish it. Ignored by the corporate media in English Canada, comments by ordinary Quebecois on francophone online news sites indicate that the charter does not hold sway with many: “Just because a teacher wears a headscarf, all their students would wear one too? On the contrary, the students would learn tolerance.” On September 9, ninety-one Quebec intellectual workers, mostly francophone academics, signed an open letter entitled “Our values exclude exclusion," denouncing the PQ’s charter and opposing any such charter on the basis of rejecting racism and the exclusion of immigrant women from social spaces.
The FAE, the federation that unites nine public teachers' unions representing 32,000 members, asserts that while they are in support of the secularization of the state, the PQ charter is not truly secular. As FAE president Sylvain Mallette, rightly states, "The right of our members to work is at stake." The FAE also targets the hypocrisy of the PQ and the CAQ by demanding that the crucifix that has been hanging in the Quebec National Assembly since 1936 be removed. Both parties, which support the notion of a charter of “secular values,” also support maintaining the crucifix in the heart of Quebec’s state authority, as a symbol of the Quebecois heritage. As Mallette has pointed out in the media:  "It is hypocritical to legislate a charter of secular values beneath a religious icon.”
This is the side of public opinion inside Quebec which the English Canadian media chooses to ignore in its haste to once again brand all Quebecois as motivated by ethnic racism. But this resistance is as real as the PQs attempts to scapegoat, and can only be ignored for so long.   

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