If the real-world consequences of the Quebec government’s recently proposed Charter of Quebec Values weren’t so severe, you might almost think the whole debate is kind of fun. It’s an opportunity for all of us to spend a couple of weeks strutting around righteously ranting about core principles like diversity and equality, to look again at our constitution’s exceptional Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to have a vigourous debate about secularism (not to mention providing the spectacle of the Parti Québécois stepping on its own bigoted rake).
Of course, the proposal itself is not fun. Unveiled earlier this month, it seeks to ban religious clothing such as turbans, headscarves, skullcaps, and large crucifixes for those who work in public service—and enshrine that ban and the principle of a religiously neutral state in the province’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It plays politics with the lives and livelihoods of real people. And even as a proposal, even if it never becomes a law, it places the topic of whether thousands of conscientious people are worthy of the rights of citizenship at the centre of public debate. It’s a disgrace to the people of Quebec.
But watching from here in Toronto, we can take a minute to reflect on the very idea of what values are, and how they are communicated and shared. It makes me wonder what a “Charter of Toronto Values” might look like, if we were inclined to create one.
It’s a harder question than it might seem, partly because all the really essential shared values (respect for human life and whatnot) are already enshrined in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its handy practical companion, the Criminal Code. Other beliefs, practices, and principles you might call values may be widely shared, but they are hardly universal. That’s one of the things that makes Toronto a great place to be—we can live beside each other and still have different lifestyles, ideologies, and opinions about Rob Ford (among other subjects, of course). “Bloody Leafs” might be close to a shared expression of values, but it’s hard to see what enshrining that sentiment in law would accomplish.
Then again, it’s hard to see what the benefit of any such charter would be. Values don’t take root because of official enforcement efforts. Sure, you can prohibit a behaviour through a law, and force compliance with it using the police and courts. But if a value is a core belief that defines what we think of as ethical behaviour, then laws—even fancy-pants charter-type laws—are useless in ensuring those values are shared.
Consider that rules in Toronto that banned businesses from opening on Sundays did nothing to preserve a culture of Christian observance, and prohibition laws seem to have backfired on the temperance movement wherever they’ve been employed—even in the Junction.
To spread your values and get others to embrace them, you need to explain them, and, more importantly, demonstrate them. If people are going to adopt your beliefs and practices, it will be because they have been convinced by your example.
In fact, that’s one of the guiding principles of our society that only gets hinted at in the official documents: We become better and improve our shared values by living peacefully and learning from one another. Even though we don’t have a charter here in Toronto, that very notion is summed up in our motto: Diversity Our Strength.
Diversity, however, doesn’t require banning some things, as the Quebec premier and her allies seem to think. It requires only the tolerance of many things. Sometimes “tolerance” gets a bad name—people think we should strive to accept each other’s differences, embrace them, and even celebrate them. The reality is that some ways of looking at the world are irreconcilable. But we can continue to live together in relative harmony in the face of fierce disagreement as long as our core shared value is mutual tolerance.
And perhaps that points to the most ridiculous part of Quebec’s values charter: It’s a document that enshrines intolerance. And that’s one way to ensure your values never become shared.