Are Secular Values Different?

I am concerned. I am concerned that how I dress, where I come from, or even what values I hold dear will be held against me. I am concerned that who I am will matter less that how I appear. To paraphrase a recent Ontario ad, I am concerned that what I wear on my head will be construed as more important than what is in it.

Doesn’t fit the image of the multi-ethnic, pluralistic Canada we have been led to expect? No it doesn’t.

I’m referring, or course, to the ever-changing Quebec Charter of Values (originally the Charter of Secularism) -Quebec, for those not living in Canada, is a province whose linguistic and cultural background is French, but whose largest city, Montreal, has long had a well-deserved reputation for being a truly cosmopolitan center. The Charter is a proposal to restrict public sector employees (including doctors, nurses, teachers…) from wearing anything conspicuously religious in nature. This would include things like the hijab, turban, kippah, and even crosses… not little ones, mind you -just ones big enough to offend… ( ) Just how such things could adversely affect health care, or students in a classroom it doesn’t explain. The qualities that I expect in a nurse or a doctor haven’t been affected by their appearances so far -and I have no reason to believe they will in the future either. In fact, the hospital where I work, not to mention the Delivery Suite where I seem to live, is a virtual United Nations. And I love it! We all learn from each other, enjoy each other -especially a prairie boy like me. So… 

The proposal has rightly stirred up a debate throughout the province, of course -but mainly, it seems, in the largest urban center, Montreal, where foreign born immigrants make up 23% of the total population. That is where the biggest opposition to the charter exists. So the government, caught with its pants down, has started waffling about what it might be willing to allow to opt out, and under what circumstances. But that seems to defeat their original reason for proposing the charter. Indeed, if there are things so unimportant as to be allowed to be dis-included, doesn’t that suggest that their importance has all the while been of questionable significance?

On first glance, the ideas behind the proposal might seem reasonable in a society where there had never been any religious roots. But Quebec’s history is a Catholic one, a religious one where, at least until recent years, it was not unusual to see the night-black gowns of priests and nuns in any crowd, on any street, and in any city or town. It’s a province where churches and cathedrals abound and where no village could hide inconspicuously in any terrain because its steeple would give it away long before any other buildings would.  A recent poll suggested that a majority outside of the urban area of greater Montreal are actually in favor of the idea of dispensing with religious symbolism. One suspects, however, that the responses were not deeply thought through and that what was really meant was the banning of the religious symbols of others.

Perhaps people outside of an urban cultural mosaic like Montreal are less used to the hijab or turban -and with the problems in the Middle East and even Africa now, I suspect also a little afraid of themSo, one of the charter’s proposals is to ‘Make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered when providing or receiving a state service.’ And, ‘To establish a duty of neutrality and reserve for all state personnel’. But wait a minute, a turban covers the hair but not the face -so do most hats, for that matter; and the hijab…? The hijab is merely an attractive scarf around the head and hides nothing of the face either. The government of Quebec even went so far as to ban turbans in their soccer teams -until not only the soccer federations but also the rest of the soccer-playing world chastised them for their silliness. They changed their prohibition, but obviously didn’t learn from the outrage.

The niqab -which covers the entire face except for the eyes- might be a bit more frightening to some, but there are variations even with this. And behind every niqab is a voice, a woman, a person -no more or less to fear than any other. We speak, after all, more with our eyes than our faces; they are what hold our attention and focus in a conversation… They are what a doctor learns to trust.

So, are we offended that some people look different from us? Think differently; behave differently? Do we really possess omniscience? Only us? How parochial! How monochromatic! The whole thing reminds me of the famous film, The Wizard of Oz. Remember how it started out in black and white -the Kansas sequences? And because it started that way, it seemed entirely normal and complete… until it suddenly blossomed into Technicolor. and we realized what we had been missing, and how drab the world had looked before. It is a wonderful metaphor to describe the multicultural experience. Life, in colour, is so much more interesting.

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