Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Trade Unions Line Up for a "Neutral" Racist Quebec

Well, you know what i think: this is a white stain on the Quebec trade union movement, certainly not the first and certainly not the last.

In the present context it is clear that arguing for a "ban on religious symbols" is at best riding the wave of racism for one's own purposes, and we know that in politics, to ride a wave is to contribute to it. (At worst, well, at worst such a position is just a chickenshit way to promote one's own racism.)

Never mind the fact that "neutral State" is an oxymoron. It is always someone's State, meant to serve someone's interests. This is not about keeping the State "neutral," it's about establishing (once again) whose State it is, whose interests it will serve. For people on both sides, the hijab is becoming a powerful symbol, and women's bodies are once again metaphors , stand-ins for social conflicts. And in Quebec, when we talk about men forcing women how to dress, we are talking about men forcing women to reveal their faces as an ersatz pledge of allegiance to "our" nation.

Of course, a certain abstract class analysis pretends that the State only belongs to a few thousand of the wealthiest citizens, that everyone else is equally oppressed. Those who like this fairy tale then see no issue with trade unions asking the State to enforce "neutrality", because as far as they are concerned their interests, their culture, their heritage is indeed neutral. If the State's decision is not clearly biased in favour of Westmount (or perhaps Ste-Foy) well then it's not really biased, is it? Or at least, not in a bad way...

That there is hypocrisy and open racism amongst those who wish for the State to be simply anti-Muslim, or post-Catholic, like the ADQ argues, should not obscure the fact that there is also racism, and there is also hypocrisy, in the "progressive" option of riding the racist wave to suddenly pass a "Charter of Secularism," one which we all know would never come into existence without the current Islamophobic brouhaha and which in practice will be enforced primarily against Muslim women who wish to work in the public sector.

(As a corollary to all this, let it be noted that the public sector remains one of the most highly unionized work sectors, that the public sector already discriminates overwhelmingly against people of color and immigrants, and that exclusion from unionized sectors has been identified as a key factor pushing immigrant communities into the poorest layers of the Quebec proletariat, separate from and oppressed by the greater national class structure.)

To be clear: a State does not become a theocracy, or "religious," because a schoolteacher or a secretary or a bureaucrat or a politician does or does not wear a hijab, yarmulke or crucifix. That is not what constitutes a religious state, any more than a revolutionary State is one where some public sector employee wears a Che Guevara t-shirt. (joke: i guess an anarchist State would be one where a civil servant goes to work naked?)

Here's the article from today's newspaper. Now excuse me while i go and puke.

Unions against religious symbols
WANT THEM BANNED IN CIVIL SERVICE This would ‘ ensure the secular character of the state,’ SFPQ vice- president says

No public servant – including Muslim teachers and judges – should be allowed to wear anything at work that shows what religion they belong to, leaders of Quebec’s two biggest trade union federations and a civil-servants union told the BouchardTaylor commission yesterday.

“We think that teachers shouldn’t wear any religious symbols – same thing for a judge in court, or a minister in the National Assembly, or a policeman – certainly not,” said René Roy, secretary-general of the 500,000-member Quebec Federation of Labour.

“The wearing of any religious symbol should be forbidden in the workplace of the civil service ... in order to ensure the secular character of the state,” said Lucie Grandmont, vice-president of the 40,000-member Syndicat de la fonction publique du Québec.

Dress codes that ban religious expression should be part of a new “charter of secularism” – akin to the Charter of the French Language – that the Quebec government should adopt, said Claudette Carbonneau, president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux.

Such a charter is needed “to avoid anarchy, to avoid treating ( reasonable- accommodation) cases one by one,” Carbonneau said yesterday, presenting a brief on behalf of the federation’s 300,000 members at the commission’s hearing at the Palais des congrès.

Same point of view at the 150,000-member Centrale des syndicats du Québec, which includes 100,000 who work in the school system, the commission heard.

Quebec needs a “fundamental law” akin to the Charter of Rights that sets out clearly that public institutions, laws and the state are all neutral when it comes to religion, said Centrale president Réjean Parent. The new law would also “define (people’s) rights and duties ... in other words, the rules of living together.”

Under a secular charter, employers would understand that they don’t have to agree to accommodate religious employees if, for example, they ask to be segregated from people of the opposite sex, Carbonneau said.

Similarly, religious students in public schools would understand they can dress as they like, but not if it means wearing restrictive clothing like burqas, niqabs and chadors, which make communication difficult, she told commissioners Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor.

And in the courts, “there are cases that are clear – I wouldn’t want to see a judge in a veil,” she said. Judges need to appear “neutral” so as to inspire confidence in their judgment, she added.

The unions’ anti-religious attitude – especially the CSN’s idea to ban hijabs on teachers – got a cold reception from groups as disparate as a Muslim women’s aid organization and the nationalist Société St. Jean Baptiste of Montreal.

“What that would do is close the door to Muslim women who want to teach,” said Samaa Elibyari, a Montreal community radio host who spoke for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. “It goes against religious freedoms that are guaranteed in the (Quebec) Charter of Rights.”

Elibyari said Muslim women routinely face discrimination in the workplace. They don’t need unions on their back, too.

“When a young teacher calls a school to see if she can do an internship, and is asked on the phone straight out: ‘Do you wear the veil?’; when a cashier at a supermarket is fired and her boss tells her: ‘The customers don’t want to see that,’ referring to the veil; when a secretary gets passed over for promotion even if she succeeds in all her French exams, and is told: ‘Take off that tablecloth’ – is that not discrimination?” Elibyari asked.

The commission is holding its final week of hearings this week in Montreal, bringing to an end a cross-Quebec tour that began in early September.


  1. I heard a story years ago about WWII. Seems that some German submariners washed up on the shores of Eire, and were picked up by the Garda--who immediately turned them over to the British. "We thought you were supposed to be neutral," said the astonished CO. "We are," said the Garda. "But we're neutral against the Germans."

    Nice piece of analysis, ST. Every time I hear the word "neutral" I feel like reaching for a weapon. Because I can just bet that "neutral against" someone is what's meant.

  2. As a staunch secularist who thinks that religion is pure quackery I resent the fact that racists are trying to hijack "secularism" for their own ends.

    You are right. Wearing a hijab or a yamulka or a turban or a cross does not threaten our secular society. While Im not particularly thrilled about the idea that I might have to sit down and explain to my kids the unfortunate reality that the vast majority of the world has nonsensical superstitious beliefs about the nature of the universe, the balance of rights clearly favours the person who wants to wear their own religious symbol. Secularism does not demand otherwise.

    The people who are demanding that people stop wearing their religious symbols are racists, not secularists. The true secularists are busy with other tasks like ensuring that organized religious groups dont use state to impose their religious dogma on the rest of us.