Quebec’s election next week may be life changing for Ruba Benini, a 35-year-old medical school resident in pediatric neurology at Montreal’s McGill University.
Benini, a devout Muslim of Lebanese decent who wears a hijab, fears she may be forced to move to another Canadian province, along with her husband and two children, if the ruling separatists win and implement the “Charter of Values,” which would ban public servants from wearing religious symbols.
“If the Parti Quebecois ends up getting a majority government, I have to start making arrangements how and where I’m going to relocate my family,” Benini, whose parents emigrated to Quebec from Ghana when she was 16, said in a telephone interview. “My family is here, my husband, my two children, my in-laws, my siblings. My whole family is here so my plan was to stay here.”
Quebec can ill afford to lose her. The Parti Quebecois has championed the nationalist cause for more than four decades, a time during which Quebec has struggled to maintain its share of the population and attract immigrants. Premier Pauline Marois’s Charter, the latest nationalist initiative, would bar public employees such as doctors and teachers from wearing clothing and headgear that “overtly indicate a religious affiliation.”
Ironically, the charter will impact many of the same people the government has sought out to counter a persistent pattern of out-migration, such as French speakers from north Africa.
A net 550,000 Quebeckers have left for other provinces since 1971, Statistics Canada data show, a period that has coincided with two referendums on secession from Canada as well as efforts to legislate French as the dominant language in the province. By comparison, oil-rich Alberta has attracted a net 600,000 people from other provinces since 1971, more than half of those since 1999.
Quebec’s share of Canada’s economic output has declined from about 25 percent in 1971 to just under 20 percent. That decline has been in lockstep with a share of Canada’s population that has dropped from about 28 percent to 23 percent over that time, and a drop in the labor force from 27 percent to 23 percent.
If Quebec were a country, its economy would rank 36th in the world, roughly the size of Thailand. That’s down about 10 notches from 1980. Montreal, home to Air Canada and Canadian National Railway Co., has seen the number of top 500 Canadian companies based there drop to 75 in 2011 from 96 in 1990, according to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian research organization.
Marois’s charter has split the province along many of the same linguistic and regional boundaries that have divided Canada’s second-most populous province for decades. Most French speakers, who make up the bulk of the population outside Montreal, support the limits on religious symbols while a majority of non-francophones are opposed, polls show. Support for the charter is lower in Montreal, where most immigrants reside.
The charter is “a very strategic, political strategy that was to try to get the nationalist identity back on the agenda,” said Chedly Belkhodja, head of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal.
Marois denies the charter has any racial or electoral motivation. She says it’s a way to encourage social cohesion in the province -- a modernizing step that ensures equality between men and women.
Quebeckers, “who are a minority in North America, need to take the necessary steps to be respected,” Marois said March 31 at a campaign stop in Trois-Rivieres, northeast of Montreal. “This is true in terms of language, it’s true in terms of values, it’s true in terms of culture, and it’s merely what we are doing with the charter.”
The proposal “clearly sends a negative message to prospective immigrants that are seeking to come to Quebec as well as those that are already here,” said Morton Weinfeld, director of Canadian Ethnic Studies at McGill. “Whatever the alleged intention of the government, it clearly sends a xenophobic message to many and probably most immigrants.”
Opinion polls show Marois’s main threat comes from Philippe Couillard and the Liberal Party, which advocates remaining part of Canada. Couillard opposes the charter and says Marois is using the idea to set up a clash with the rest of Canada as a pretext for a renewed push for separation. “I’ve never seen something so cynical in the Quebec political landscape before,” Couillard told reporters March 31.
It’s too soon to say if the charter would have a noticeable impact on migration, said Francois Vaillancourt, a Universite de Montreal economics professor who has found evidence of a link between support for sovereignty and Quebec population flows. Few people who would be directly affected, Vaillancourt said in a telephone interview, and the drive for secularism may attract other immigrants seeking to escape religious societies.
Surveys show migration is a concern for many non-French Quebeckers. A March poll by Ekos Research Associates Inc. showed about half of people who don’t have French as a first language have seriously considered leaving Quebec in the past year.
A separate Ekos poll last month for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. found that about 78 percent of the province’s English speakers and 70 percent of those whose mother language is neither English or French agree with the statement that Muslim woman have been targeted by the charter. Even more believe the plan fosters anti-Muslim sentiment.
Ironically, Quebec’s Muslim population has surged in recent years because of another policy to promote the province’s identity - the selection of French-speaking immigrants, particularly from Muslim countries in North Africa. Between 2006 and 2011, the share of Quebec immigrants who identified themselves as Muslim was 29 percent, compared with 17 percent for Canada as a whole. Thirty-one percent of all Muslim immigrants to Canada over that period settled in Quebec, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census.
There is a perception “that a large part of this immigration doesn’t share the same values” as other Quebeckers, said Belkhodja.
For McGill medical students, already among the least likely in Canada to practice in the province where they studied, the charter of values may be another reason to leave.
“This bill has nothing to do with their ability to be good residents,” said Stephanie Lam, president of the Association of Residents of McGill. “Probably for a certain number it would impact their decision” to stay in Quebec, said Lam, a 26 year-old resident in diagnostic radiology.
Couillard’s Liberals hold a lead over Marois’s Parti Quebecois in public opinion polls, putting the future of the proposed charter into doubt. The Liberals had the support of 37 percent of voters, compared with 28 percent for the ruling separatists, according to an Ipsos Reid poll published by the Globe and Mail yesterday.
Days before the April 7 vote, Benini is watching closely.
“People don’t understand when we wear the hijab or the kippa or a turban,” said Benini, who has already voted at an advance poll. “It’s not just a religious garment you can leave at home early in the morning to go to work and come back and put it on again.”