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Je me souviens By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Founded by three Augustine nuns, L’Hôtel-Dieu was the first hospital in North America.

In 1639, Québec’s famous Hôtel-Dieu hospital was founded by three Augustine nuns who came from France to provide medical care for the colonists and the First Nations communities who lived near them. L’Hôtel-Dieu, which still operates as a teaching hospital, was not only the first hospital in Canada, it was the first in North America.

But if the Augustine sisters arrived to provide medical care for the people of Québec today, they would face a new obstacle: the Québec government’s proposed “Charter of Québec Values.” The new Charter would prevent anyone employed by the government—be they Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, or members of Catholic religious orders—from wearing “ostentatious” clothing that reflects their faith. Since the Augustine nuns wore religious habits that covered them from head to toe, they would be forbidden from working in a government hospital.

The sisters wore religious habits that covered them from head to toe while working in Québec’s Hôtel-Dieu.

In a province where healthcare and education are largely government-run, the Charter’s reach is sweeping. The Québec government’s definition of “ostentatious” is sweeping, too: it includes headscarves, turbans, kippahs, and even large crosses.

This official government poster states that the three religious items at the top will be permitted, but the bottom five will be prohibited.

The proposed charter is dramatically out of step with practices in countries like Spain, Austria, and the U.K. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called the proposal “Putinesque.” And Québec’s former health minister has predicted that the Charter will cause a major exodus of doctors from Québec.

But for a document supposedly needed to protect Québec’s unique values, the Charter is also surprisingly forgetful about Québec’s past. Deeply religious people have been arriving on Québec’s shores seeking to serve the public through healthcare and education for nearly 375 years. Then it was Augustine nuns, today it includes not only Catholics but also Muslims, Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and many others. It’s a shame that the Charter ignores this history in favor of a false neutrality has the effect of pushing religious believers out of public service.