No to Divisions! Yes to working class unity!
Debates are raging in Québec over the “Charter of Québec Values” which the Parti Québécois government officially made public on Sept. 10, but whose content had been published for the most part by the media several days previously.
In all likelihood, the government itself orchestrated these leaks in the media, to evaluate the impact that the project would have with the electorate. Last May, the Government conducted a survey which showed the support of a majority of citizens for a framework of “reasonable accommodations”. On that occasion, the minister responsible, Bernard Drainville, announced that the “secular charter” promised during the previous election campaign would instead become one of “Québec values.”
Essentially, the project contains five propositions revolving around two principal aspects: the establishment of tags to manage requests for religious accommodations and, secondly, the declaration of neutrality of the State, in particular prohibiting all public employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols.
In the latter case, it is proposed to allow CEGEPS, universities, health and social service establishments and municipalities to be exempt from this ban during a transitional period of two five-year terms. However, this aspect remains by far the most controversial because it violates fundamental rights.
Moreover, while the project intends to ensure the religious neutrality of the State, it allows a multitude of Catholic symbols, considered part of the patrimony of Quebec. So, the crucifix that pro-fascist Premier Maurice Duplessis placed in 1936 in the National Assembly to illustrate the close relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, would paradoxically remain.
A PETTY ELECTORAL CALCULATION
The PQ minority government is desperately looking for a parliamentary majority. During the last election campaign, in the context of student protests over tuition hikes, the PQ was forced to focus more on the left of the political spectrum, making many promises along the lines of popular demands: abolition of Bill 78, cancellation of the tuition increases, abolition of the health tax and electricity rate increases, higher taxes on the rich and increased royalties on natural resources, etc.
The PQ went in this direction only because the space on the political right which it had tried to occupy was already too crowded, on the one hand by the Liberal Party and secondly, by the Coalition for the future of Québec (CAQ), which had delighted its nationalist right supporters.
However, once in power, citing their minority status, the PQ was quick to betray almost all promises one after another, and to show their true colours by adopting a very austere budgetary policy. Far from worrying about women’s rights as the PQ claims with this Charter, it has instead attacked public health and education services, penalizing mainly women. The PQ has also attacked the most deprived by decreasing the social assistance benefits of persons aged 55 to 57, as well as families with children under five years. Of course, many of those who had elected the PQ are disappointed.
On the other hand, led by Philippe Couillard, the Liberal Party had largely recovered in the polls, while the CAQ declined, creating a situation which is very threatening for the PQ.
The PQ made the opportunistic calculation that the launch of its Charter of Values would allow it to gain support from voters on the right, particularly those who previously voted for the CAQ and the ADQ, and who fear for their national identity. Without openly admitting this, the PQ expects to benefit from the latent feelings of intolerance, xenophobia and islamophobia which exist in some segments of the population.
Currently, there is no real problem in connection with religious accommodations that is urgent to resolve, or any concrete threat to the Québec identity from religious symbols worn by people from cultural communities. It is clear to the majority of the people that the PQ is electioneering.
A CAMPAIGN THAT SKIDS
Initially, after the first leaks in the media, the PQ appeared to have won this bet. Opinion polls were largely favourable to its project. Once launched by the Government, the debate unfortunately allowed, in a way, certain manifestations of racism, sometimes in the street, but more often in social media.
But, there is also a mobilization of those who oppose this Charter, including many intellectuals, professors and famous artists, such as Richard Desjardins, Dan Bigras or Michel Rivard; the ex-student leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois; organizations such as the Federation of Women of Quebec, the League of Rights and Freedoms, or the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers union.
While supporting the principle of secularism, Québec Solidaire opposes the prohibition on the wearing of religious symbols by public employees: “We do differentiate between the religious neutrality of the institutions and individuals” said QS co-leader Françoise David.
Other opponents are people very well-known in the sovereignist movement, such as Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani, François Leblanc and Patrick Marais (former top advisors to Gilles Duceppe), former Bloc Quebecois MP Jean Dorion, writer Yves Beauchemin, the well known author and former PQ candidate, Robin Philpot, and philosophy professor Michel Seymour, the former president of Intellectuals for Sovereignty, etc.
Another organization opposing the Charter is Amnesty International Canada francophone. General Director, Béatrice Vaugrante, fearing stigmatization and isolation of some women, questioned the necessity to “substitute for a supposed constraint to wear a religious symbol, the State constraint not to wear it”.
All this democratic opposition has begun to seriously reduce support for the project, considered repressive and divisive. According to the latest survey, there would be as many opponents as supporters.
The expulsion of Maria Mourani from the Bloc Québécois because of her open opposition to the Charter has sent a serious shock wave through sovereigntist ranks. The PQ pretensions to carry out “an open debate” were exposed, but in doing so, the PQ may have permanently alienated much of cultural communities, as well as their eventual support for the project of Québec sovereignty.
On the other hand, support which a xenophobic and racist right could bring to the draft Charter does not necessarily or automatically translate to votes for the PQ. A part of this right is federalist and opposes Québec sovereignty (for example, supporters of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party).
According to some statements by representatives of the government, it would be willing to consider trade-offs on the prohibition of ostentatious religious symbols by public sector employees.
But at the same time, the government seems to manoeuvre for the electoral battle. It has appointed four ardent partisans of the Charter of Values to the Board of Directors of the Council of the Status of Women on the eve of that body taking a position. However, opinions were divided on this Council, and these appointments were publicly denounced by its President Julie Miville-Dechêne as a downright takeover by the Government of the body, which is supposed to enjoy a degree of independence to be able to fulfil its advisory mission. In addition, there are some indications that logistical preparations for elections this fall have been ordered by the authorities.
QUÉBEC BASHING IN THE CANADIAN MEDIA
As soon as leaks about the PQ project came out in the Québec media, there was an outcry in the media in the rest of Canada to denounce it. Accusations of intolerance, racism, or even of fascism have been launched, conveying chauvinistic prejudice against Quebec.
This is not new. During the 1940s, the Communist intellectual Stanley Ryerson in his book French Canada denounced “the calumny to the effect that French Canadians as a people are indifferent or inimical to democracy is refuted by the historic record. The democratic tradition is deep-rooted in the consciousness of the Québec people.”
Shortly before, on July 26, in a court case involving the language rights of francophones in British Colombia, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision confirming the position of the lower courts, to the effect that it is not allowed to file documents only in French in the courts of this province; they must also be translated into English. The Court also ruled that using only English in those courts is not contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Nevertheless, in the Canadian media, this decision passed virtually under the radar. One can imagine the fury triggered by a similar decision in Québec against the English language. This double standard perfectly illustrates the great injustice that reigns in this country against Quebec. Unequal Union, as Ryerson called it.
It is precisely this unjust and unequal treatment within Canada which causes the Québécois to fear for their identity. The dominant status of English Canada at the expense of the other nations in Canada is the starting point of the national discords which weaken the struggle of working people against the domination of monopoly capital.
YES TO SECULARISM, NO TO THE PROHIBITION AGAINST WEARING OF RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS!
The PQ practices essentially the same strategy: divide and rule. If its attempt to win a parliamentary majority on the basis of this Charter of Values turns people against each other, it will be able to strengthen its attacks against the working class, and accelerate the implementation of its social cuts and austerity programme.
The Communist Party instead seeks to unite the working class so that it can withstand the attacks of the bourgeoisie, and to struggle against capitalism and for socialism. It is through the development of the class struggle, under the conditions of capitalist society, that workers manage best to overcome their religious beliefs and join the fight for socialism.
The Communist Party is of the opinion that religion and the churches of all kinds are fundamentally reactionary, and serve to defend the exploitation of the working class. We are unequivocally in favour of state secularism. Public institutions must display neutrality towards religions. So, it is important that the crucifix be removed from the National Assembly if it wants to qualify for the secularism of the State.
However, the Communist Party supports the freedom of conscience and the democratic right of individuals to practice their religions or to have none. We oppose coercion and advocate an approach relying on persuasion and education. In this sense, the Communist party categorically opposes the prohibition on wearing religious symbols by public employees as proposed by the PQ, which really does nothing, since, as Frederick Engels said, “persecution is the best way to strengthen adverse convictions,” to heighten interest in religion, and to make its actual decline more difficult.
“New immigrants form a considerable portion of Canada’s labour force. Immigrant workers continue to suffer from acute discrimination, arising in the main from capitalist exploitation and attitudes of national chauvinism. From its foundation the Communist Party has struggled to end discrimination against immigrant workers, working to expose how capitalism generates racism and national chauvinism, profits from low wage areas, and divides the working class to hold back the overall struggle.” *
The Communist Party calls for the adoption of a new constitution which would:
“prohibit the violation of the civil liberties of immigrants. It would outlaw racism and discrimination. It would assure the democratic, cultural and language rights of the non-French, non-English ethnic groups in Canada. A new constitution must embody a Bill of Rights, and a Bill of Rights for Labour, to provide guarantees of trade union and democratic rights which apply to the people of all nations within the Canadian state. These guarantees must ensure economic, social, cultural and linguistic equality, the right of assembly, the right to organize and strike, the habeas corpus right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s liberty, the right to a job, to freedom of movement, to health, to education, to housing. The rights of women, youth and children must be guaranteed.”*
“A new constitution should unify social legislation to provide equal opportunity and high standards in all of Canada while respecting the sovereignty of Quebec, and the right to self-government of the Aboriginal peoples.” *
The Communist Party also proposes a voluntary and equal partnership of Québec and English Canada, including the right to secede, guaranteeing the full participation of Aboriginal peoples to protect and develop their inherent national rights, including the right to genuine “self-government”, a right of veto against any change that would affect their constitutional status, and the right to accelerated economic, social and national development.
“This fight for constitutional change is crucial to the overall struggle for democracy, social advance and for socialism. Uniting the working class across the country will not be possible without combating national oppression and fighting to achieve a new, equal and voluntary partnership of Canada’s nations.”*
(*Excerpts from the program of the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Quebec, Canada’s Future is Socialism!)
Statement of the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ-PCC), September 24, 2013