The recent media buzz stirred up by a sad story captures well the sense of uneasiness pervading Quebec since the ruling Parti Québécois (PQ) began working to implement a bill known as the “Charter of Quebec Values,” which would ban state employees from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols.” On January 30th, in the morning rush hour of Montreal, a woman descended toward the subway train. While riding down the escalator, her scarf got caught in the mechanism, and as she was trying to get it out, her hair also got stuck. When she reached the ground, the scarf was firmly cinched around her neck, so tightly that she quickly died by strangulation. As tragic as it is, such an accident would not have made the front pages under normal circumstances.

But the deceased was a veiled woman. Before she was even identified, journalists, bloggers and social media enthusiasts started asking: was the woman strangled by an “ordinary scarf” or by an Islamic veil? The fact that a woman had actually died became peripheral. “Is a veil the cause of her death?” was the hot question.

Less than an hour after the drama, Quebec’s most watched TV channel (TVA) reported that the women was “strangled to death by her hijab.” The day after, Quebec’s most widely read newspaper (Le journal de Montréal) ran the headline, “A woman dies, strangled by her hijab.” The escalator, the mechanism, and other basic elements of the story were now out of the picture. All that was left was a poor woman and a malicious hijab. While nasty comments such as “hijab kills” were filling the social media sphere, the rest of Quebec’s media stuck to the narrative of the police report, which alluded to a “scarf.” Newspapers like Le Devoir and The Gazette even avoided referring to any kind of garment in their titles.

The Terms of the Debate

This sad episode is instructive on at least three counts. First, it shows that Quebec’s media are not only divided about the government’s proposed Charter; they also differ markedly in their coverage of news events involving “religious symbols.” Second, it teaches us that the media outlets that most forcefully support the contentious aspects of the Charter (Le journal de Montréal, Le journal de Québec and TVA) do so primarily through the reporting of current affairs and human interest stories. These three media giants do not run editorials on the government’s proposal; they cover the topic in a way that speaks to what William Connolly has called the “visceral register.” Odds are that the Charter’s popularity owes a lot to these media giants—which, incidentally, all belong to the same corporation: Québecor Média.

Finally, this media hype around an ordinary drama leads us straight into the heart of the disputed issue: the proper place of “religious symbols.” It is worth stressing, however, that the proposed Charter (also named Bill 60) is a much more encompassing program. It articulates three interlinked projects. The first seeks to set “clear rules on religious accommodation” and thus complete the process initiated by the consultation commission chaired by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor (for more on the Taylor-Bouchard report, see Audrey-Ann Lavallée Bélanger’s piece). The second project aims to affirm Quebec’s values (among them, sexual equality and the predominance of the French language) in order to “clarify the social contract that binds us together.”

The fact that the Charter does more than ban religious symbols is commonly overlooked. And yet, it is crucial to note that each of the above projects enjoys a broad and rare consensus in the public as well as in the media. The debate therefore revolves around the third project, that of “establishing the religious neutrality of the state.” Even here, nearly no one objects to the principle of state religious neutrality; the puzzle is to decide what such neutrality entails. The government claims that individuals representing a neutral state must appear religiously neutral before the public, and therefore refrain from wearing religious symbols. But not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning.

State Neutrality and Religious Symbols: What does the Press Say?

In addition to the sensationalist tabloids Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec, four daily newspapers dominate Quebec’s media scene: La Presse, Le Devoir, Le Soleil and The Gazette. The oldest of all, La Presse, has opposed the ban of religious symbols from day one. Pragmatically, the center-right newspaper argues that if parliament passes the bill, religious minorities will feel “ostracized,” and will prefer to live (and work) in other provinces of Canada. Polemically, La Presse adds that prohibiting religious symbols not only contravenes religious freedom; it also violates Quebec values. Echoing the Quebec Liberal Party, it suggests transferring the task of managing religious diversity to local state institutions (schools, hospitals, universities, etc.).

Published in Quebec City, Le Soleil belongs to the same news corporation: Gesca. Without great surprise, its take on the Charter resembles that of La Presse. Right after the unveiling of the Charter, the capital’s newspapers conjectured that its enforcement would cause a wave of brain drain, citing as evidence the slogan created by an Ontarian hospital as a means to attract Muslim medical students: “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.” Le Soleil and La Presse regularly deploy economic arguments in their campaign against the Charter, whether by insisting on the judiciary cost of its enforcement or on its negative impact on Quebec’s economic performance.

By contrast, the position of Le Devoir (center-left) is more overtly political. Quebec’s only independent large-circulation newspaper has been fairly sympathetic to the government’s project. Like nearly all newspapers, it supports the religious neutrality of Quebec’s state. But unlike most, Le Devoir endorses the government’s rationale according to which employees of a religiously neutral state ought not to display religious symbols. Supportive of the project of Quebec’s independence, Le Devoir called early on for a moderate and consensual Charter, one that could be integrated into a future Constitution of Quebec. As the proposed Charter failed to forge consensus, it asked for compromises, while insisting that the debate is worth having and must be held in the public sphere (rather than in the more limited legal sphere).

Of all the media coverage, that of The Gazette has arguably been the most critical in Quebec. The proposed Charter is “unnecessary, intolerant, hypocritical and cynical,” wrote Montréal’s premier English language newspaper. This “abomination,” argues the editorial board, is meant to “exploit fears and divisions in Quebec society.” Still, despite the radical and moralistic tone, The Gazette has never condemned the debate on the public expression of religion being held in Quebec since last August. On the contrary, the newspaper maintains that “Quebec might yet be better in the long run for having had this debate, depressing as it may be in some of its aspects.” Here, perhaps, lies the decisive contrast between the media coverage in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. Top national newspapers such as The Globe & Mail and The National Post have mocked the “laughable Charter” from the get-go. But in addition, they have constantly scorned the debate launched by the PQ, stressing the “absurdity of [the] entire exercise” and blaming “Quebec politicians’ xenophobic instincts” for it (oblivious to the fact that most politicians in Quebec reject the proposed Charter).

Navigating the narrow path between the sense of panic whipped up by the sensational tabloids and the contempt of the English-speaking press outside Quebec, Quebecers carry on with the debate. But as the parliamentary consultations over the Charter are in full swing in Quebec City, the public is—like the media—utterly divided. More importantly, it is divided along unconventional lines. Feminists, syndicalists, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and sovereignists all have to deal with quarrels in their ranks as the Charter cleaves apart political parties, social movements, and media houses. If The Gazette is right in saying that aspects of this debate are depressing, perhaps we should tell ourselves (paraphrasing Sartre) that a quarrel is another way of living together without losing sight of one another.