(This story was originally published on November 12, 2013 at the Hill Times site under the title “Oleh Iwanyshyn: English media, polls vilifying Quebec’s Charter of Values“)
In its condemnation of Québec’s Charter of Values as an attack on Canada’s religious freedoms, English media have vilified not only Premier Marois and the Parti Québecois, but also millions of Canadians both in Québec and across English Canada who happen to agree with its intent. This is the unavoidable conclusion one is led to when examining public opinion polls.
Are millions of Canadians guilty of religious intolerance?
Polls show public support for this legislation embraces about half of all Quebecers (based on aggregating polls from Léger, Forum and SOM) , and almost 4 of every 10 Canadians in English Canada. That translates to about 3,5 million individuals 15 years of age and older in Québec and over 8 million in the rest of Canada. Realistically, there is little doubt that if these millions of Canadians were asked whether they were opposed to religious freedoms, most would vehemently disagree. Clearly, the conclusion that support of the Charter constitutes a de facto expression of religious intolerance is nonsensical.
The polls themselves affirm this. When asked if public employees should be fired for wearing prominent religious apparel, a CTV-Ipsos Reid poll found a large majority of Canadians (72% nationally and 69% in Québec) disagreed. Since many of those also support the Charter, it does not seem like a response indicative of religious intolerance.
Public input in Québec on the Charter confirms what the polls have told us–the plan has popular support. . The PQ government revealed that 47% of 26,000 comments were entirely favorable, 21% were favorable with changes, and only 18% were opposed. Clearly, there is something more at play here.
Is it religious intolerance or separation of church and state?
A more plausible conclusion is that for most, support for the Charter has little to do with religious intolerance. In fact, its primary inspiration is something far more important and distinctive to the Canadian way of life–namely the historical principle of the separation of church and state.
For many Canadians the separation of church and state is not as abstract a concept as one might think. While in Canada the concept does not have the force of law, many Quebecers still remember the dark age of the Duplessis regime and the extraordinary power of the Catholic Church in the affairs of the state. Also, the problems in the Middle East are fresh reminders of what happens when religion enters the domain of politics. Whether newcomers or native born, most Canadians would prefer to avoid creating a similar situation in Canada.
This somewhat obvious rationale seems to attract little interest among English media critics. Instead, their focus is the allegedly nefarious political machinations of Premier Marois and PQ and the fear that the ultimate intent is to win a majority and separate Québec from the rest of Canada.
That’s a big if.
A defense of religious freedoms or an attack on the PQ?
Portraying the Charter as an attack on religious freedoms is simply a convenient way by which to bash the PQ party while feigning concern about religious freedoms.
The recent editorial in the Toronto Star is typical of this duplicity. It describes the proposed Charter as something that “offends basic Canadian decency”, erases “human dignity”, sends “an ugly message that some are less welcome than others”, and “offends the Constitution, Québec’s long tradition of tolerance, and this nation’s deeply held values.”
Are the millions of Canadians, both French and English, who support the Charter that gullible, so lacking in decency, so insensitive of the human indignity they are causing, and so intolerant of other religions that they could embrace this diabolical creed? Unless one is totally cynical, this line of reasoning fails the credibility test.
Public opinion polls have not been helpful in clarifying this complex and sensitive issue. Some of the questions used by pollsters seem intent on portraying Quebecers as religiously intolerant and xenophobic.
Bad poll questions, sloppy media interpretations
An Angus Reid Global poll found that while 64% of Quebecers believe they are doing too much to accommodate religious and cultural differences, only 17% of the rest of Canada agree with them. But what do Canadians in English Canada know about the religious accommodations in Québec? Do they know that the Québec government provides funding to a diversity of religious schools, not just for Catholics as in Ontario? For most, probably not. The meager 17% response is dictated by ignorance, and likely has more to do with the historical antipathy of some in English Canada of Québec’s equal status as a founding nation. Nevertheless the bottom line media message is that Québec doesn’t do enough religious accommodation and is therefore intolerant of religious groups.
A Forum Research poll found 43% of Quebecers were “uncomfortable being served or
attended to by someone wearing a turban, a hijab or a yarmulke in a public sector
office or setting such as a school or a hospital”. The wording of the question makes a proper response to the variety of combinations impossible. For starters, what does “uncomfortable” mean? Is it a euphemism for religious intolerance, or an expression of concern about the imbalance between church and state in the public arena? What if a respondent is comfortable with a yarmulke or turban, but is uncomfortable with a niqab because it masks the face (except for the slit across the eyes)? What if a respondent is comfortable with all forms of religious apparel in a hospital setting, but not in school or government offices? Clearly, it is a poorly designed question, woefully ambiguous in meaning and interpretation. That said, the most damaging interpretation is one where “uncomfortable” is code for religious intolerance. That would cast 43% of Quebecers into that undeserved role.
And exploiting religious intolerance was exactly the path a Léger poll took. With the headline proclaiming “Poll challenges Quebec’s image of tolerance: Findings dispute PQ stance that province is welcoming to immigrants“, the Montréal Gazette article reported 46% of Quebecers agree with the statement that Québec society is threatened by the influx of immigrants, and that 40% don’t believe their city is enriched by the diversity of religious groups. Among Francophones these figures are even higher. This, the article concludes is evidence that the province is not welcoming and tolerant of new arrivals.
That logic is a stretch. There is a much simpler explanation for these data points.
Balancing secular state values with religious values
Many Quebecers feel there is an imbalance between the accommodations of their host society and the religious demands of some immigrant groups. To them, it’s not a matter of religious intolerance; it’s a separation of church and state issue. If they believe that certain immigrant customs based on religious beliefs are intruding upon host customs based on the secular notion of separation of church and state, then of course this group feels threatened by the influx of immigrants and feels that they should modify their customs. It’s therefore not surprising they would also feel that their community is not enriched by the diversity of religious groups.
To designate this group as intolerant seems an excessive over-reaction and unfair.
Need for fair play in accommodation
But it is also unfair to those for whom wearing religious apparel is important, to summarily pass a law that makes this custom illegal in certain designations. If, for example, immigrants were told prior to immigrating to Québec that there would be restrictions on their religious apparel, they may have decided not to emigrate to Québec. Having set up their families, homes, and careers in Québec, telling immigrants to now obey this new law or suffer being excluded from a significant swath of Québec society, is inconsistent with our Canadian sense of fair play.
In the spirit of fairness, there has to be an accommodation on both sides. But in trying to understand where there is common ground for accommodation, it is misleading and morally repugnant for pollsters (in their choice of questions) and English media (in how they interpret these questions), to vilify not only millions of Quebecers, but also Canadians in the other provinces as being religiously intolerant. Starting with this assumption is not the road to a mutually acceptable accommodation.