Concordia Officially Against Charter

Admin, Unions Now United in Opposing Public Religious Symbols Ban

A sign made for a protest against the proposed charter, lying in a garbage can after the demonstration. Photo Brandon Johnston

After months of internal deliberation, Concordia University finally revealed its position on the Parti Québécois’s proposed Charter of Values, coming out in December against what it considers key elements of the possible public ban on religious symbols.

“The university is calling on the government to amend portions of the charter, the portions in particular our community has very clearly and unitedly, to a large part, said it cannot be comfortable with, the sections referring to religious symbols,” said university spokesperson Chris Mota in December following the university’s stance going public.

The position was rendered following months of in-house consultation with students, faculty and other members of the Concordia community, according to university president Alan Shepard.

“I didn’t want, as university president, to have a knee-jerk reaction,” Shepard told Concordia’s Board of Governors at their Dec. 11 meeting.

A draft of the original statement was disseminated by the university administration to faculty and staff unions as well as student representatives. The final document, jointly approved by the university’s Senate steering committee and the executive committee of the Board of Governors, met the CSU’s expectations, according to Concordia Student Union President Melissa Kate Wheeler.

“I was proud to put the CSU’s name on it,” she said. “It’s not perfect but it’s very solid, I would say.”

The CSU first came out in opposition to the PQ’s values charter in a unanimous vote by council Sept. 19. The CSU registered its commentary with the provincial government Dec. 20, according to Wheeler, which she says goes line by line through the union’s grievances with the legislation.

The Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association also was quick out of the gate in opposing the values charter, stating that it would discriminate “against freedom of choice, undermine our multicultural diversity and will have the effect of further ghettoizing minorities,” according to a press release dated Sept. 20.

Concordia was the last university in Montreal to publicly voice its opposition to the charter.

Popularly known as the Charter of Quebec Values, Bill 60 or the “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests,” would see all public sector workers—including the employees of universities in Quebec, which the province considers public institutions—restricted from wearing any “ostentatious” religious symbols and head coverings.

“We’re ready to roll; this isn’t going to sit well with us if it gets pushed much further.” —CSU President Melissa Kate Wheeler

While its proponents argue such a ban would unify the province under a secular model and protect women from the oppression perceived in some religions, its opponents have dismissed the bill and its justifications as thinly-veiled racism, sexism and xenophobia towards visible and religious minorities.

In its statement released Dec. 17, the university made clear its opposition was based in part on potential risks to enrolment and hiring retention rates, which Concordia says could be negatively affected by a ban on religious symbols inside public institutions.

“It is true that certain elements of the bill—notably the principles of the secular nature of the state and the equality of men and women—are strongly reaffirmed by our Board of Governors and Senate,” reads a joint release from the university sent to the media.

“We are, however, unable to support other key elements—such as its provisions prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by university employees and the superintending of our policies on academic accommodation on religious grounds by a government ministry.”

The university also added in its statement that its autonomy could be challenged by the implementation of the charter, which multiple university governors took issue with last week during the monthly Board of Governors meeting.

A major concern during the Board’s discussion was the university ultimately having to adhere to the government’s criteria—and not an internal policy—when granting requests for reasonable accommodation, which cannot oppose any provisions of Bill 60 if the proposed charter is passed.

Another concern expressed by governors and reiterated by Wheeler on a separate occasion is the worry that Bill 60’s proposed prohibition on having one’s face covered when receiving a public service could prevent some students from attending university in Quebec.

Going forward, Shepard says the university is prepared to continue to voice its opinion on Bill 60 both in and outside the provincial National Assembly.

“The government said that in the spring they will call for people to come and make presentations,” he said to other governors at the Dec. 11 Board meeting. “It’s possible that Concordia would be invited [to state its concerns].”

David Douglas, president of CUPFA, told The Link he considers the values charter to be a wedge issue driving a snap election in the spring, particularly to weaken the PQ’s chief ideological competitor among sovereignists, rival provincial party Coalition Avenir Québec.

However, he added that if the bill does end up being ratified into law, CUPFA would continue to voice its opposition to the charter, denouncing it as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which under Canadian law supersedes any provincial legislation.

As for Wheeler, she says the CSU is also prepared to keep denouncing the charter and would be ready to mobilize if necessary.

“The next step for us is really going to be about paying attention and being ready: being ready to take a strong stand—which we’ve already done, but be ready to defend that stand publicly,” she said.

“We’re ready to roll; this isn’t going to sit well with us if it gets pushed much further.”