It was written Doctor Michael Shevall, Chair of the Pediatrics Department at the McGill Faculty of Medicine and Pediatrician-in-Chief at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
Editors note: I have changed two names in the letter to pseudonyms, for obvious reasons.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter ”
- Martin Luther King Jr.
The astute reader will already note from the absence of a Sir William Osler quote that there is something different about this week's Acknowledgment. The individuals selected this week are symbols, simply chosen for who they are though they abundantly merit an Acknowledgement for their substantial contributions.
First I must make it clear that I am writing not in my position as Chair of the Department or Physician-in-Chief of our beloved hospital. I have not sought my employers' endorsement for this. I am writing as an individual and colleague who simply cannot remain silent this week about the outrage that is the proposed provincial Charter of Values. Leadership comes with responsibility. It also comes with opportunity and in this case a readily available email distribution list. If you object to my using this as a means of delivering a "political" message, simply read no further. If I get flak from the powers to be in the University or the MUHC, its flak I am more than willing to take for the sake of a clear conscience and being able to look my children in their eyes if they ever ask; "Dad, what did you do?"
The proposed Charter is so fundamentally flawed, it astounds me that in 2013 in the democratic civil society that we purport to be that it even merits consideration or debate. It shows a fundamental failure of logic, reason and historical precedent.
The state is indeed separate from religion. The state should be neutral in matters of religion and faith. The state should not use it resources to favour one religion over another.
How these fundamental truths of our society can be construed to mean that an individual's rights of religious expression must be constrained in some way is incomprehensible.
Personalizing an issue allows us to move from the abstract to the particular. When this Charter was introduced I immediately thought of two members of our community that I interact with a regular basis. I thought of Brian Rosen (not his real name,) a classmate, colleague and friend, who as an observant Jew regularly wears the now forbidden kippah. For over 20 years Brian has provided care for Quebec's children with frequently challenging immunologic and allergic disorders. He is a world-leading researcher in his field. Brian is a full Professor and Associate Chair (Research) for the Department. Any clinical Department is robust and successful with Faculty members such as Brian. I thought of my pediatric neurology resident Rima Allkouri. (not her real name) Rima immigrated to Quebec as a teenager from her native Ghana. Fluent in French, in addition to English and Arabic, Rima completed a MD-PhD at McGill and is now in her final year of her residency. She is everything you would want a resident to be; intelligent, hard working, conscientious, and a determined advocate for her patients. She has a long bright future ahead of her. Rima wears a hijab. After 5 years of knowing her, I have no clue what her hair color is.
For both Brian and Rima, their faith and spirituality is as much a part of their individual identity as anyone's skin color, mother tongue, ethnic origin, gender identity or sexual orientation. It is an essential integral part of who they are. It makes them the individuals we value. It has absolutely no impact on others. It does not influence the care they provide. No child or family has complained. Yet these outward expressions of their deeply held faith now somehow violates a Charter of Values (an example of naming irony if there ever was one) that somehow must be banned from the public service sphere in which they serve so valuable a role. That these expressions of faith are banned, but not others, affirms the inherently racist and discriminatory nature of a Charter that springs from the darkest reaches of ignorance.
Any student of history will tell you that the erosion of human rights for some is always predicated on the notion that the "other" is somehow less of a person, less of a human. The last 100 years is all too replete with such examples, unfortunately not restricted by geography, ideology or ethnic distinctions. Take a moment to personally think of a few. Don’t forget to think of the victims who under different circumstances of time and location might have been you or someone you know and care about.
Our Department's Mission/Vision/Values statement eloquently describes our commitments to cultural sensitivity, tolerance and collegiality. Our staff and most importantly the children and families we care for reflect the diversity of humanity. You don’t need to travel to tour the world. It is here amongst us. There is no going back as much as some would like.
We cannot remain silent on this. To hide behind an institutional "opt-out" cause is to accept for others what we would not accept for ourselves. It is quite frankly cowardly.
There is a wonderful story of Christian X, King of Denmark during the Nazi occupation, wearing a yellow Star of David identifying with his Jewish subjects when they were compelled to do so by the Nazi occupiers. Unfortunately historically it is not true, but it gives me an idea for an action we can take collectively.
What I am suggesting is that one pre-selected work day in the very near future that we all choose to wear one of the banned symbols, be it a kippah or turban for men, a hijab for women, or large crosses for both genders. In this way we can affirm our identification with those whose rights are directly infringed by this Charter. By the way while some are directly infringed, denying rights to some is ultimately a denial of rights to all.
Please contact myself if you are interested in helping to organize the above protest. I already have my kippah picked out and would love to have some company.
Michael Shevell, MD CM, FRCPC, FAAN, FANA
In August, as leaks appeared in the newspapers concerning the proposed Charter a quick poll indicated that the majority of Quebecers where in favour.
Since the publication of the details, there has been a dramatic decrease in support, a happy reaction to the push back by citizens who after taking stock of what was to be enacted, thought better of the idea of supporting the draft legislation.
In August 57% of Quebecers supported the idea of a Charter, while 28% opposed.
The latest poll has 43% in favour and 42% against.
I have heard from more than a few Quebec commentators that Quebecers are uncomfortable having this argument and so putting on more pressure will help sink or gut this law.
The undecideds are holding firm at about 15-16%, but if the 'argument' continues, more will shift to the 'against' side.
I think that a lovely gesture like donning the hijab, turban or kippah by health professional for a day of support will rock the province.
The more institutions that join the protest, even for a day, the stronger the message.
I daresay the event would not only be reported here but around the world.
It is also important to keep up the pressure for another reason, that is, to weaken this issue over which the PQ is hoping to boost its popularity and perhaps on to a majority government.
That seems to have failed, but with more push back, the population will become tired and annoyed with the issue.
Health professionals who wear articles of faith are keeping their heads down, hoping that the issue will go away (it probably will as I predicted.)
But it is the wrong approach.
Those doctors, nurses, technicians and ancillary staff who speak out publicly and aver that they will seek employment outside Quebec will send a powerful shot across the bow of Charter supporters.
There is a hungry and willing press, ready to pass on your message, so don't be afraid.
It is time to ramp up the pressure, because in killing the Charter of Secularism, we are hammering in the last nail in the coffin of Pauline Marois' government.
Congratulations to Doctor Sheval for his initiative, I hope it is successful and that many take up the call.
If any person of faith would like to avail themselves of this space to articulate his or her position as to why wearing a religious symbol is important to them, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I can even offer to print your contribution without attribution.