Tolerant Canada Cracks Down on Yarmulkes and Head Scarves

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Here's a Canada quiz for you: Which of the following statements about the province of Quebec is false?

  1. It boasts an impressive cultural and architectural heritage.
  2. Its filmmakersare some of the best in the world.
  3. Its breweriesput America's to shame.
  4. Teachers, doctors and government workers can soon be fired for wearing a yarmulke, head scarf or turban.

Stumped? The right answer is number 3, of course: Some American beer is actually pretty good.

Last week the Quebec government released what it calls its Charter of Values, which would ban "overt and conspicuous" religious symbols worn by public employees. That's a broad category in Quebec. It includes day-care workers, physicians, police officers, school teachers and people who work in government ministries -- such as, for instance, the Ministry to Monitor Religious Symbols.

That last point was a joke, at least for the moment.

The province says that common sense will be enough to enforce the law, so it won't create a new "religious police." In case anyone's unclear, here's a helpful graphic of what's allowed (the first three images) and what's not (the next five). As you can see, smaller symbols are kosher -- sorry, allowed -- but it's not clear how big is too big.

Source: National Post

The law has exceptions. Religious symbols that are "emblematic of Quebec's cultural heritage" are allowed. Unsurprisingly, those symbols turn out to be Christian: The crucifix that hangs behind the speaker's chair in the Quebec legislature, the enormous neon cross on the top of Montreal's Mont Royal, Christmas trees and town names with the word "Saint" in them.

So religious symbols are mostly a problem if they represent somebody else's religion. For the province's many recent immigrants, a good chunk of them Muslims from other former French colonies, it's not hard to see who the real targets of this law are.

If you think this seems a little incongruous with Canada's tolerant, multicultural image, you're half right. The federal government has said it may challenge the law in court, and some Quebecers are protesting against it. But between half and two-thirds of French-speaking Quebecers support the law, depending on the poll.

The law is the latest chapter in the struggle by Quebec -- or at least white, Catholic, French-speaking Quebec -- to preserve its identity amid an influx of newcomers who don't fit the mold, without sacrificing its values. As columnist Andrew Coyne asked: In which circumstances "is a society entitled to impose its norms on a minority within it, and in which is it obliged to accept their differences?"

The answer we have been groping our way toward is this: The majority may and must prevail in those cases, and only in those cases, where minority differences are the source of harm, either to the fundamental interests of the majority or the rights of individuals. We are properly concerned, for example, to prevent the import of female genital mutilation: To shrink from doing so in the name of cultural relativism would reduce all of our ideals to mush. There are certain conditions, likewise, in which the face must be revealed, as a practical matter, and where this is so religious objections must give way. But a ban on all religious dress? On what evidence? On what even halfway plausible theory?

It's tempting to predict that this law won't last long -- that the Quebec government will reverse itself, that it will lose office, or that the courts will intervene. But that's far from certain. And even if the law doesn't survive, it's an uncomfortable reminder that values and norms that seem firmly established can be seriously and quickly threatened by politicians looking for an advantage. Even in Canada.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at