Viewed from the outside, Quebec often seems like a place where all life orbits around the political destiny of a French-speaking province in an English-speaking country. The latest instance centers on religious headwear.
The trigger is a heatedly debated plan by the ruling party, the separatist Parti Quebecois, to make the provincial government religion-neutral. It wants to do so by banning symbols of religious faith such as religious symbols, Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, and Muslim head scarves from public work places.
And as usual, the measure is being read also for what it says about the ruling party’s perennial goal of making Quebec independent of the rest of Canada. The analysis is that with support for separatism weakened, and an election being predicted for December, something spectacular is needed to rally the party base.
But the proposal appears to be losing support with that base, and if anyone is being mobilized, it’s the opposition. In recent weeks Montreal has witnessed the rare spectacle of thousands of protesting Muslims, Jews and Sikhs marching together through the streets.
The proposed ban, part of what the Quebec government calls its “charter of values,” has divided the province of 8.1 million though polls show it holds more support among French-speakers.
The Parti Quebecois is a minority government and will need opposition votes to pass the charter, which won’t happen without it being softened considerably.
Montreal, a mix of classic North American skyscrapers and the charm and style of a French city, has added a new layer of personality over the past decade with an influx of Muslim immigrants from North Africa.
Montreal has a sizeable Jewish community as well.
The ban on religious headwear, the most disputed element of the proposed charter, would apply to anyone working in public institutions, including day care workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers.