On April 7th 2014, Quebec voters replaced the minority Parti Quebecois (PQ) government with a majority Liberal (PLQ) government. The election results likely spelt the death of the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values, which would have banned public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Ahead of the vote, PLQ leader Philippe Couillard stated that he opposed it. The Quebec bar association had declared it unconstitutional, and Quebec’s Human Rights Commission argued that it would create more problems than it would solve. PQ leader Pauline Marois, on the other hand, declared that certain legal advice given to her had pronounced the charter, in fact, legal. She offered little elaboration. Couillard promised, during the campaign, to release any legal advice the PQ had allegedly received on this subject. Many commentators were skeptical of the veracity of Marois’ legal encouragement. One representative commentator noted cynically, “open your chequebook and pay a lawyer and you can get any opinion you want”. Justin Trudeau, leader of the federal Liberal Party of Canada, derided what he saw as the “politics of division” inherent to the proposed Charter. He asserted that Quebecers are by and large “open people, tolerant people, compassionate people”, who found it “unacceptable that someone can be forced to pick between his or her religion and his or her job.” (1) Condemnations of the PQ’s “politics of division” proved to be among the 2014 election’s major themes. Allison Hanes of Postmedia News called it “one of the dirtiest and most divisive campaigns in recent memory.”(2)
Inclusivity was advocated by many Quebecers in late 2013 to 2014 as the preferred alternative to the PQ’s alleged “exclusivity.” Much graffiti on PQ election posters makes, for example, a simple accusation – “racist”. Yet inclusivity was the same view advocated by the PQ government itself. The website created to promote the Charter of Values asserts that “to maintain social peace and promote harmony, we must prevent tensions from growing”. The government emphasized the need for “a state that treats everyone the same”; a state that promotes “social cohesion.” It seems the PQ government, at least in theory, was campaigning on unity rather than disunity. For, as it maintained, “integration and social cohesion” would ultimately benefit a shared sense of Quebecois unity. (3) As stated, this claim has been heavily contested. So, both the PQ and the PLQ campaigned on a platform of unity over division. When Couillard’s PLQ won the election, he declared that Quebecers “have chosen unity and openness… the division is over. Reconciliation has begun.” (4)
Our group sought to understand Madeleine Parent’s vision for the future of Quebec’s social climate. To do this it was helpful and intriguing to consider what her reaction might have been to the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values. The most important question is whether the Charter is an inclusive or exclusive document. The language of Bill 60 (the Charter) seems to suggest the former: it affirms “the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men.”(5) On the surface, a discourse of state neutrality and gender equality tends to uphold inclusivity. Our purpose, however, is to inquire whether, in Parent’s opinion, the Charter would really have had this effect, had it become law. The criticism expressed in 2013-2014 was never about state neutrality as such (or even whether the state’s neutrality might possibly be threatened by the contentious issue of minority accommodation). Rather, criticism of the Charter revolves around the methods the state might choose to enforce its alleged neutrality. Is it accurate, when calling for a ban on religious symbols in the workplace, to call such a tactic “neutral”? Can we more accurately describe the Charter as being anti-religious rather than religiously neutral? Aren’t these two different things? Has Bill 60 merely leaped from the frying pan into the fire? Quebec’s Human Rights Commission seems to uphold the latter view. Here is what each of us, fresh from McGill’s archives, has concluded regarding Parent’s likely stance towards the Charter, and what it says about her vision for Quebecois society in general.
Madeleine Parent officially retired from her career as a Union Organizer in 1983 when she was 65 years old. Despite retiring she remained an active campaigner for many rights causes, especially the labour rights of women with a focus on minority and native women. In her later years she was an active participant of and held a leading position in some feminist groups such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and Ontario Committee on the Status of Women (6). She also helped to co-ordinate relations between these groups and others, importantly with feminist groups in Quebec to create a stronger national movement. This gave the feminist movement as a whole more bargaining power with the federal government to lobby for the change of sexist laws and improvements in women’s condition in Canada. She also had remaining ties with some Union groups and would help co-ordinate movements between all of these groups so as to create a powerful force with which they all could lobby against legislation that would limit their rights (7). Madeleine Parent is remembered with fondness by all of the groups she influenced, and they all paid tribute to her undeniable spirit and tireless efforts following her passing in the spring of 2012 (8).
In viewing both the contextual and primary source evidence surrounding Madeline Parent and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, there is definitive evidence in the NAC and Parent’s opposition to the Charlottetown Accord that further suggests likely opposition to the Charte de valeurs québecoises. On account of Parent’s support of equality for minorities, the NAC’s position on immigration policy, and Parent’s dislike for the creation of a rights hierarchy, a standard reading of the Charte would find these elements present, and justify Parent’s opposition to it.
Madeleine Parent proved herself to be an ally of all woman. She did not discriminate and believed that every women from all nationalities, religions and cultures deserved to live in an equal society where all their rights were both protected and respected. One group which she worked very closely with was the Aboriginal Woman of Canada and Quebec. She was described as both a friend and inspiration by Aboriginal woman as she supported many different groups and committees including the Quebec Native Women Inc and the Native Women’s committee within the NAC (National Action Committee on the status of Women). (9) Native Women were only one example of the many groups of women she supported. Parent worked tirelessly for minority, immigrant and all other women who might have been discriminated against.
Madeleine Parent, if nothing else, had a keen eye for exclusive and unequal policies. From the earliest days of her political consciousness this is true. When, as a pupil in a Catholic convent, she came to reject the class divide in 1930s Quebec; when she enrolled in McGill University and noticed the same class divide, with the added division of a de facto language barrier against French-Canadians; when her feminist-syndicalist message was sharply criticized by an intimidating gang of “church, government and employers” (correspondence, 1991); when McCarthyist paranoia, often spearheaded by Premier Duplessis, “endlessly red-baited” Parent (Sangster, 197) and even saw her convicted of “seditious conspiracy”; when she and Kent Rowley were ridiculed and booted out of the AFL for desiring independence from the traditional American dominance of Canadian labour (not ‘labor’!) unions; when Parent criticized the powers-that-be for embracing neoliberal social and economic policies after 1985; when nations went to war with Iraq – twice; when they raised their military budgets at the expense of human rights projects; when government policy ignored the plights of women minority workers; – this life suggests several things. It suggests a general wariness of government projects. When Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives maintained that their reforms would boost the Canadian economy, Parent stressed the negative impact these would have on women, particularly in Native Canadian and minority communities, as I have shown. It was unjust, she believed, to leave these groups behind even if it really did help the economy as a whole. At a deeper, more abstract level, we can say that Parent was never content to accept the appearance of things as such. When governments made grand proclamations, she did not accept them at face value. Her long struggles had conditioned her to delve beneath the surface, especially where the rights of minority women were concerned.
That is why I believe Parent would have very quickly recognized the contradictions in the PQ Charter of Values. While theoretically propounding equality, it takes little account of the religious minorities it would effectively bar from the public service, by enforcing a ban on their “ostentatious” religious garments (notably Muslim head coverings). The Charter offers these people lip service. They are equal – but only insofar as they embrace their equality by casting off their religious symbols. If enforced, the Charter would have restricted an entire class of devoutly religious people from the public service – in the name of egalitarianism and “neutrality”. The bill would also have granted the Office of the National Assembly “the power to approve the presence of a religious symbol in the premises of the Assembly [i.e. the notorious Christian cross]”, while denying other religious groups the same right. The Charter almost reads like a satire of the most tyrannical law a government can offer. (10) It is replete with glaring contradictions which Parent would surely have railed against.
(1) CTVNews.ca Staff. “Quebec Liberals won ‘without too much effort’, Legault says”. Bell Media. Published 08/04/2104. Comment by “MikeFisto” published 08/04/2014 at 9:35am. Quotation from Justin Trudeau excerpted from an interview with CTV’s Canada AM. Article retrieved 08/04/2014 at 2:05pm. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/quebec-liberals-won-without-too-much-effort-legault-says-1.1765991
(2) Hanes, Allison. “Quebec voters gave Liberals a majority, Pauline Marois quits as PQ leader”. Postmedia Network Inc. Published 07/04/2014, modified 08/04/2014. Retrieved 08/04/2014 at 3:15pm. http://o.canada.com/uncategorized/quebec-voters-get-their-say-today-after-ugly-campaign/
(3) Government of Quebec website. Retrieved 08/04/2014. http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/en#rules.
(4) Qtd. in Hanes, “Quebec voters gave.”
(5) Bill 60, Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. 1st sess., 40th legislature, Quebec Official Publisher, 2013. Retrieved08/04/2014. http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/medias/pdf/Charter.pdf.
(6)Lynn Kaye and Lynn McDonald, “The Women’s Movement in Canada: Setting the Agenda,” in Activist, ed. Andree Levesque (Toronto: Sumach Press), 103.
(7)Petition, 1986, File: Bulletin -1986, Box 666, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.
(8)Maryellen Symons, ”Farewell, Madeleine Parent,” Ontario Bar Association 18 (2012): 1, accessed April 5, 2014, http://www.oba.org/en/pdf/sec_news_fla_apr12_Farewell_Symons.pdf.
(9) Quebec Native Women Inc. “Quebec Native Women wishes to pay tribute to the unwavering support Madeleine Parent has shown to Aboriginal women throughout her life.” March 13, 2012. http://www.faq-qnw.org/sites/default/files/press/pdf/Pressrelease-madeleineparent-EN-1.pdf
(10) Edmund Burke famously stated: “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny”, 1780. http://www.notable-quotes.com/b/burke_edmund.html#TrPbBhzoks06J4DO.99.
CTVNews.ca Staff. “Quebec Liberals won ‘without too much effort’, Legault says”. Bell Media. Published 08/04/2104. Comment by “MikeFisto” published 08/04/2014 at 9:35am. Quotation from Justin Trudeau excerpted from an interview with CTV’s Canada AM. Article retrieved 08/04/2014 at 2:05pm. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/quebec-liberals-won-without-too-much-effort-legault-says-1.1765991
Hanes, Allison. “Quebec voters gave Liberals a majority, Pauline Marois quits as PQ leader”. Postmedia Network Inc. Published 07/04/2014, modified 08/04/2014. Retrieved 08/04/2014 at 3:15pm. http://o.canada.com/uncategorized/quebec-voters-get-their-say-today-after-ugly-campaign/
Lévesque, Andrée. Madeleine Parent: Activist. Toronto: Sumach Press. 2005.
Government of Quebec website. Retrieved 08/04/2014. http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/en#rules.
Bill 60, Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests. 1st sess., 40th legislature, Quebec Official Publisher, 2013. Retrieved 08/04/2014. http://www.nosvaleurs.gouv.qc.ca/medias/pdf/Charter.pdf
Quebec Native Women Inc. “Quebec Native Women wishes to pay tribute to the unwavering support Madeleine Parent has shown to Aboriginal women throughout her life.” March 13, 2012. http://www.faq-qnw.org/sites/default/files/press/pdf/Pressrelease-madeleineparent-EN-1.pdf
Symons, Maryellen. “Farewell, Madeleine Parent.” Ontario Bar Association 18 (2012): 1-2. Accessed April 5, 2014. http://www.oba.org/en/pdf/sec_news_fla_apr12_Farewell_Symons.pdf
Box 662,666, 680, 681. Madeleine Parent Fonds. McGill University Archives.