We form a society by buying in to shared values; they are the glue that binds us together and informs our identity as individuals and a community. The Parti Québécois (PQ) wants to establish a separate society from Canada and its opportunity to try to do so depends on how Quebecers vote in the April 7 election. I suggest Quebecers’ choice will be heavily influenced by the values they most want upheld, when no politician stands for all their values and they must choose which should take priority.
Among the values in play in the Quebec election are those related to the proposed “charter of Quebec values” (Bill 60) and the PQ’s desire to make Quebec a secularist society, which, unlike a secular society such as Canada, is not neutral with respect to religion. The charter would promote secularism as the founding shared ideology of the province by actively repressing the voices of religious people in the public square, and breaching their human rights to freedom of speech and expression, and of religion.
The PQ’s attempt to legalize euthanasia (Bill 52) means the values in play are also a conflict between upholding “respect for life” of both individuals and in society in general, and “respect for individual autonomy” of those who want euthanasia.
In combination the two bills are separating Quebec society internally into four distinct groups on the basis of their values: those who support the values charter and reject euthanasia (many rural Quebecers); reject the charter and support euthanasia (urban “progressives”); support both (some feminists); and reject both (human rights respecting conservatives). How might these people vote?
Many “traditional rural Quebecers” who support the values charter, but reject euthanasia are French Quebecers, at least nominally Roman Catholic, whose religious affiliation is central to their history and culture and, therefore, to their identity. Because their religious affiliation, whether nominal or substantive, is a central element of their identity and bonding to others, they view people of non-Christian religions as not “one of them” — they are the stranger, the alien, the Other.
“Traditional rural Quebecers” perceive non-Christian immigrants as a threat to their identity, which elicits fear and free-floating anxiety. They see the charter of secular values as a taking of control which will eliminate this threat, thereby reducing their fear and anxiety.
Although the charter’s stated goal is to make Quebec a non-religious, secularist society, people in this group seem to believe it will not affect their religion in any detrimental way. The PQ may have reassured them their Christian tradition is not under attack by exempting from the charter’s requirements the crucifix in the National Assembly and the cross on top of Mount Royal.
Many people in this group probably reject euthanasia, but, nevertheless, are likely to give priority to affirming the charter, especially if their fear is intentionally augmented, and, consequently, to vote for the PQ.
“Urban progressives” reject the charter and support euthanasia. They want to replace conservative values, which they label “restrictive values”, with so-called “progressive values”, primary among which is respect for individual autonomy. Legalizing euthanasia is seen as the flag-bearer of the affirmation of a person’s right to self-determination.
Although many in this group are secularists, they reject the charter because it contravenes respect for individual autonomy and breaches human rights to freedom of expression and religion. It’s difficult to predict on the basis of their values how they will vote.
If they vote for the PQ, to vote for legalizing euthanasia, they unavoidably vote for the charter. If they don’t vote for the PQ to vote against the charter, they unavoidably vote against euthanasia. Their vote might be determined by other factors, in particular, whether they are separatists — when they will support the PQ — or federalists, when they almost certainly will not do so.
Some Quebecers, for example some feminists, are “pro individual autonomy and anti religion” and support both Bill 52 and Bill 60. Because they espouse respect for the value of individual autonomy, they support legalizing euthanasia, but because they see religion as “the root of all evil” and view it as suppressing individual autonomy, they reject giving priority to individual autonomy with respect to religious expression in the public square.
Their rejection is also on the basis that religious expressions, such as wearing a hijab, constitute a “suppression of women” and reflect a patriarchal society that does not recognize the equality of men and women. Unless they are federalists, the people in this group will vote for the PQ, indeed, three of them announced they are running as PQ candidates in the election.
The final group, which rejects both Bill 52 and Bill 60, are “human rights respecting conservatives.” They reject legalizing euthanasia because they believe we must maintain the value of respect for human life, both at the level of each individual person’s life and the societal level, and that requires that we do not intentionally kill each other. And they believe freedom of expression and religion are basic human rights and reject the secular charter because it contravenes those rights, divides Quebec into a “them” and “us” society, and will be the source of increasing conflict with and intolerance of those identified as “them.” They will not vote for the PQ.
This reality of different “values packages”, which results in various groups sharing some values and not sharing others, also means that who are friends or opponents can change depending on the value. So, for example, in supporting the charter “rural Quebecers” are friends with “feminists”, but, in rejecting euthanasia, they are their opponents. This rejection makes “rural Quebecers” friends with “human rights respecting conservatives” on euthanasia, but the latter reject the charter, which makes them opponents on that.
“Urban progressives” are friends with “feminists” in supporting euthanasia, but they are their opponents in rejecting the charter, where “urban progressives” are friends with “human rights respecting conservatives”.
The PQ’s radical secularism and separatism agendas are related and complementary. Legalizing euthanasia and the “Quebec values charter” carry a separatist message in that, in choosing, through these bills, its own values independently of the rest of Canada, Quebec establishes its own separate identity.
Moreover, we not only bind to form a society through shared values, we unbind by rejecting those shared values. It’s hard to imagine a more differentiating characteristic between Quebec and the rest of Canada than that in legalizing euthanasia Quebec would allow what is first degree murder in the latter.
All that said, no matter in which of the above groups we belong, it seems more and more probable that the factor which will be the most important for each of us in deciding for whom to vote is whether or not we want Quebec to separate from Canada.
Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.