Culture & Conversation

Sovereignists against the Charter

A woman address Pauline Marois during a protest against the PQ's values charter

A woman address Pauline Marois during a protest against the PQ’s values charter

L’urgence de penser : 27 questions à la Charte, eds. Jonathan Livernois and Yvon Rivard, Leméac

The government led by Pauline Marois is gone but not forgotten. Sadly, the most lasting memories of her brief time in office will be the ugly debate on her government’s Charter of Values. In particular, historians will focus on the clause that sought, in the name of secularism, to render minority religions invisible in public institutions, from daycares to universities. Hijab-wearing women were unmistakably the key target.

L’urgence de penser : 27 questions à la Charte was published on the eve of the April 7 election that ejected the Parti Québécois from power, eliminating any chance the Charter would become law. The new Liberal government was quick to rename The Ministry of Citizenship and Cultural Communities to the Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion.

The book consists of 27 short essays (most of them four to six pages) written by academic and literary figures, including poets and philosophers who are not often heard from – but with, sad to say, few women among them. Most oppose the Charter, though several, notably Jonathan Livernois, co-editor of the collection, show tepid support. Much of this opposition comes from sovereignists who say the Charter is simply not the way forward. A few of the essays are highly abstract in tone. Most, however, are more down to earth.

“Any attempt to separate religion from culture is vain and weakens an identity,” says essayist and novelist Jean Bédard. “We tried to force the First Peoples to abandon their spirituality. Did this provide good results?”

Postdoctoral researcher Julien Lefort-Favreau contributes the following thought: “The PQ’s charter infringes on democracy, not because it encroaches on religious rights but because it imposes a policed conception of social space that denies any possibility of contemplating equality other than as a homogenization of social identities.”

Jacques Pelletier, associate professor of literary studies at UQÀM, offers the view that “if we approach the issue strictly from the variable of secularism, the bill presented by the government is useless and discriminatory… Québec is today a broadly secular society in the concrete areas of practices and mentalities.”

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who has emerged as the sharpest thinker among the triumvirate of student leaders from the spring 2012 protests, sees support for the Charter as a rebuke of the individualist ethos of the neoliberal project and its failure to deliver on its promises. He looks forward to “an authentic collective debate focusing on issues more basic than the wearing of visible religious symbols in the public service. That we pretended for months to be debating ‘Québec values’ without ever touching on issues of the environment, education, culture or social justice shows the highly vote-oriented character of PQ rhetoric on the Charter.”

With the Charter now a moot issue, it may seem that this book came out too late. But the underlying issues have by no means gone away. Remember that it was only in 2007, in response to xenophobic ravings from rural politicians that then Premier Jean Charest launched the Bouchard-Taylor on reasonable accommodation. He had hoped to sweep the whole thing under the rug, and in the end ignored most of the commission’s recommendations. But the corpse never stopped stirring. L’urgence de penser, alas, will remain important reading.


Eric Hamovitch is a Montréal translator and former Mexico City correspondent and journalist.

Photo by Matias Garabedian (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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