Charter of Values Debate

Tempest Beneath a Chador

Tempête sous un tchador (Tempest Beneath a Chador) is the name given by the producers of Tout le monde en parle (Everyone's talking about it, my translation) to the interview with Fatima Houda-Pepin, the only Muslim member of the Québec National Assembly.

In January 2014, Mrs. Houda-Pepin was asked to leave the Québec Liberal Party by its leader Philippe Couillard because of a disagreement over the Charter of Values.

On Sunday January 26, she was a guest of Guy Lepage the host of Tout le monde en parle, the most watched variety and current affairs program in Québec. Following are pertinent portions of her interview (italics mine) as they relate to the proposed Charter of Values. It goes without saying that Mrs. Houda-Pepin knows what she is talking about.

I, of course, take full responsibility for any misunderstanding about what was said and any errors in translation.

Lepage: Where the Charter is concerned she does not hide behind a veil, here is Fatima Houda-Pepin. Mrs. Houda-Pepin, welcome to Tout le monde en parle. You are the member of the National Assembly for "La Pinière" since 1994 and you have always been re-elected under the Liberal banner. Last Monday, you left the caucus of the Liberal Party of Québec after a lengthy meeting about your party's position concerning the wearing of religious symbols by government employees. Did you leave on your own or were you asked to leave by your leader?

Houda-Pepin: Actually, I never had a choice, because Mr. Couillard told me: "either get in line, trample your principles and defend my position in public or get out." I had offered another solution. I said I am a Liberal and have been a Member of the National Assembly for 20 years. I have made a substantial contribution to the Québec Liberal Party and would like to be given some leeway within the Liberal Party of Québec to continue a debate which is only beginning.

Lepage: And you were refused that?

Houda-Pepin: Yes, in effect, that is what he did. It was no, a resounding no!

Lepage: You told the Canadian Press that Philippe Couillard promised you a cabinet post in an eventual Liberal government if you supported his position on the Charter of Values. You obviously turned down his offer. Don't you like limousines?

Houda-Pepin: Listen, I am in politics to serve, not to serve myself and that is what I told them. I simply said that if that is what it was, it was not for me, because I am in politics for my values, what I believe in and my principles.


Lepage: You would deny the wearing of religious symbols to people in a position of binding authority, that is judges, policemen; while Philippe Couillard wants to proceed on a case by case basis in denying the right to wear the burqa, chador and niqab. Why is the position of your former leader impossible for you to endorse? Are you so far apart?

Pepin: First and foremost, Mr. Couillard has decided to adopt a purely legalistic approach by embracing the [Canadian] Charter of Rights. I respect the Charter of Rights, I fought for human rights, but women's rights are also human rights.

Lepage: Of course.

Houda-Pepin: Considering what is at stake, you must understand that, because of the rise of the fundamentalists in different religions, the threat is greater for women. After much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that government neutrality in religious matters could allow us to put firm limits, to contain the rise of the fundamentalists.

You talked about the Charter [of Values]; the Charter in its present form does not address these issues. Since 2011, I had been quietly working on a bill that would ensure the neutrality of the state in religious matters and [help in] the struggle against fundamentalism. I submitted it to Mr. Couillard so that he could bring it to caucus to be debated. And if adopted, after amendments by my colleagues, we could table it [in the National Assembly] as our contribution to the debate. Right now, you have the government bill, bill 60, you have the CAC (Coalition Avenir Quebec) and Québec Solidaire) which have also contributed. The only other party, an important party in the National Assembly, is frozen in a negative position.

People ask me, even Liberals ask me, where do you stand?

I managed to bring this up at caucus in October. After exposing the challenge posed by the fundamentalists, I noticed in the looks and expressions, the body language of my colleagues, their nodding approvingly, that they were acknowledging that Fatima is trying to explain something with which we should concern ourselves. Mr. Couillard [then] got up and said: "Fatima, the debate is over!". This was in October, the Parliamentary Commission had yet to begin its hearings.

Lepage: Yes, you had one or two months ahead of you.

Houda-Pepin: Everywhere everyone is talking about it, in the media, in other parties; and the Liberal Party would place limits on an important debate …

Lepage: The PQ's (Parti Québecquois) proposed Charter of Values would ban the ostentatious display of religious symbols by government employees, including public servants, teachers, CPE (Centre de la Petite Enfance, Centres for Small Children i.e. daycare) educators; we talked a lot about that, what are your thoughts on this?

Houda-Pepin: In this debate, which got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning by targeting specific groups, Muslim groups in particular; and I regret this very much …

Lepage: We always give the same example, veiled women.

Houda-Pepin: … because, as a general rule we make no distinctions between fundamentalists and Muslims who are democrats like myself, who talk about this. They are not the exception, they are the majority and they are on the front lines in this fight against the fundamentalists, because they know what they (the fundamentalists) are all about.

Lepage: They don’t want a return to that.

Houda-Pepin: Exactly.

Co-host: But we don't hear much from them.

Houda-Pepin: Yes, you are right …

Co-host: Muslims like yourself, moderates.

Houda-Pepin: There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim; there are Muslims who believe in democracy. The term "moderate Muslim" is an invention of the media which allows Islamic fundamentalists to operate below the radar.

Co-host: [jokingly] I will never say it again Madame.


Houda-Pepin: Who are the Muslims? They are a diversity of communities. Muslim should always be plural because they come from Africa, from the Islands …

Lepage: They [Muslims] are not a race.

Houda-Pepin: Exactly. I am from Morocco, a country open [to the world] and tolerant. When I was growing up, I had Jewish, Christians and Muslim playmates; we went to school together we celebrated each other's [religious] holidays. I bear no grudges, having lived Islam in harmony.

I only got to know what fundamentalist Islam was when I came to Canada. It is here that I got to know the most intolerant, the best organized, the most structured and the best financed groups, with means and worldwide connections. It was quite a shock.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of Muslims try hard to integrate; their children do well in school, they have a future. This is not well-known because the fundamentalists have the upper-hand (control the message) and have the ear of the media. They (the fundamentalists) have become the tree which hides the forest.

Lepage: But what is the link between the wearing of religious apparel and the fundamentalists?

Houda-Pepin: For the fundamentalists, a woman must not be seen in public, right. If, by chance or by necessity a woman must go out in public, she must be invisible. She must, when going out [in public], wear her prison and that way we don't see her figure, we don't see her beautiful face or her hair because it's [sexually] seductive and so on and so forth … This means that the public space is not for these women …

It is a segregation [of the sexes] that is done in the public space. We in Québec and in Canada went to the United Nations to denounce apartheid regimes, segregation based on race was unacceptable and I would not accept segregation based on sex because that is what it means, the chadors, the burqas and all these imported ways of dressing which are meant, in the name of freedom of religion, to impose values that are alien and from another century.

Freedom of religion, for me, leaves some things to be desired. We will eventually have to confront this reality.


I believe that the state's neutrality in religious matters is our best guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion which is why it is so important to define limits and what those limits mean and write it in the [Canadian] Charter of Rights so that it applies equally to all.

Lepage: We often accused politicians of only being concerned with the short-term and the next election; obviously you are definitely above that, it is a pleasure to have you on Tout let monde en parle.

Bernard Payeur, February 2, 2014