Taking Concordia’s Anti-Charter Stance to the National Assembly

Concordia Officials Explain their Opposition to the Proposed Charter of Values

A protester demonstrates against the proposed charter at a rally held in Montreal on Aug. 14, 2013 Photo Brandon Johnston

The outside temperature may have been hovering around a frigid minus-20 degrees Celsius in Quebec City last Thursday, but the heat was turned up on Concordia officials at the National Assembly as they faced tough questions while presenting the university’s stance on the Parti Québécois’ proposed Charter of Values.

Benoit-Antoine Bacon, provost and VP Academic Affairs, and Roger Côté, VP Services, presented the university’s position on the charter to the provincial parliamentary committee examining Bill 60, also known as the Charter of Quebec Values. Concordia is the first university to present at the hearings.

Bacon explained that Concordia opposes the charter because of the university’s particular history and identity as a diverse institution, the anticipated impact of the charter on the recruitment and retention of students and professors, and the democratic principle of academic freedom.

“It is true that certain elements of the bill—notably the affirmation of the principles of the secular state and the equality of men and women—elicit firm support from the Board of Directors and Senate,” Bacon told the committee, reading from the university’s official statement on the charter.

“We are, however, concerned about other key elements of the bill, such as the measures prohibiting employees of the university from wearing religious symbols, as well as the ministerial supervision of our policies on religious accommodation.”

If passed, the charter would ban public sector employees—including those working for government departments, state-subsidized daycare centres, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and municipalities—from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs, niqabs, kippas and large crosses. Bacon said such a ban could hamper the university’s ability to attract and retain talented students and professors.

“We worry that the negative repercussions of Bill 60 will impact not only those people who, in accordance with their religious beliefs, express their faith every day, but equally those who, for intellectual and moral reasons, would object to such restrictions,” he said.

According to Bacon, Concordia’s stance on the charter was the result of a “vast consultation” that took place with the approval of the university’s Board of Governors and Senate, its senior academic body. He added that the university’s official position has the support of 11 student associations and labour unions at Concordia.

“We talked a lot about the charter at Concordia during the fall of last year,” said Bacon. “As of the initial presentation of the secularism charter in September, a number of our community’s members let us know very, very quickly of their concerns.”

The Concordia administration received over 200 email messages about the charter.

“Ninety-eight per cent of the messages that we received rejected the charter principally, predominantly—in fact, almost exclusively—because of the ban on wearing religious symbols considered ‘ostentatious,’” he said.

Making a Case for Religious Symbols in the Classroom

During the question period that followed Bacon’s presentation of the university’s position, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville asked Bacon and Côté to respond to comments sociologist Guy Rocher made at the parliamentary committee on Jan. 21.

Rocher had said there’s been a “more or less general consensus” for a long period of time that university professors should refrain from promoting their political and religious beliefs in the classroom.

“It’s not a step backward [to allow employees to wear religious symbols], it’s the present-day situation,” responded Bacon. “And for us, it’s working very, very well.”

Drainville pushed for an explanation, adding, “It’s not because a practice is in place that it’s necessarily desirable.”

“Minister, we all have a heritage; we all have convictions; we all have personal opinions that are discernible either from our appearance or very, very rapidly from our discourse,” Bacon responded.

“Religious symbols that are considered ‘ostentatious’ are but one of the many indicators of our origins or opinions. Others can be the name of the person, their accent, the colour of their skin, the way that they choose to dress, what’s scrawled across their T-shirt, et cetera. We can’t dissociate the teaching from the person that’s doing it.”

Drainville next cited Martine Desjardins, the former president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, who led the organization at the time of the 2012 student protests.

Now a representative of the pro-secularism group Rassemblement pour la laïcité, Desjardins told the parliamentary committee on Jan. 21 that the problem with professors wearing religious symbols is that students cannot criticize a professor’s religious beliefs as they might criticize political beliefs openly expressed by the professor to the class.

Asked to respond, Bacon said the proportion of university courses directly dealing with the topic of religion is “very, very small.”

“There are large sections of knowledge in engineering, in business, in science that do not touch questions of religion at all,” he said. “We can’t say: ‘There are certain symbols considered ostentatious that are not allowed; other symbols, those ones, we tolerate them.’

“T-shirts of Che Guevara continue to be permitted. That doesn’t stop people from talking about revolution or communism, and that doesn’t stop students from criticizing them. Universities are about a plurality of points of view.”

Asked by Drainville if Concordia students could write exams with their faces covered by religious headgear, Côté said yes, so long as the identity of the individual is confirmed first.

“We aren’t comfortable refusing an education to someone who has the capacity [to learn],” Bacon added.

There were more friendly exchanges between Concordia’s representatives and two Liberal MNAs sitting on the parliamentary committee. Kathleen Weil—the Liberal MNA for the riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, which includes Concordia’s Loyola campus—asked how Concordia deals with its diversity and the issue of state secularism.

“I believe that one of the successful elements of the harmony that exists at our university—it’s respect, the respect of the individuals amongst us, recognizing our differences but recognizing that [this diversity] is a strength that benefits the learning process of [students] at the university,” said Côté, adding that eliminating such diversity would “weaken the experience, the value of the experience at the university.”

Asked by Liberal MNA Rita de Santis how much it would cost the university and other institutions to challenge the charter in court if they decided to do so in the future, Côté responded that the scenario was “perhaps a little hypothetical for the moment.”

“We’re taking advantage of the occasion and the invitation that we received […] to come give our opinion, share our point of view. We hope to receive the attention of the government, and I think that we’ll keep to that for the moment,” Côté said.

Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Nathalie Roy asked Concordia’s officials if the university has statistics on the number of employees who would be affected by a ban on religious symbols.

“Those types of statistics, we don’t collect them. We don’t ask employees of the university, when hiring them—nor students for that matter—what their religious affiliation is or other opinions,” Côté answered. “So we don’t have numbers. But experiencing Concordia, it’s evident that there’s a lot of diversity.”