Affairs

Soft Power

Don't send the wrong message— Montreal

Preface

It’s all very well wanting to stand out from the crowd but when you’re revamping your region’s image, at least make sure it comes out looking better. David Michon wonders whether Quebec knows what it’s doing.

Canada, Charter of values, Montreal, Quebec, City branding, Religion, Secularism

13 September 2013

What are your favourite cities? Where can you imagine yourself moving to, setting up a business and settling into? Maybe you have a handful in mind. Maybe you're struggling to choose between Zürich’s calming efficiency, New York’s energy or the beaches of Rio.

But what common threads run through these choices? It certainly isn’t found in the mileage of cycle lanes or the cost of real estate. They are places we judge to offer a good quality of life, with enough excitement to compensate for cramped apartments, or a food scene that blinds you to the fact it takes an hour to cross town.

This is to say: it’s the culture of a place that draws us in. Dozens of factors combine to give it one nebulous sense of itself – a set of values the city lives by. And it is attempts to articulate this set of values by cities, regions or countries that constitute ventures in branding. They produce such recognisable slogans as "the city that never sleeps" or the "sunshine state".

But articulating values can be used for a variety of purposes – and not always to help push a friendly or inviting image. In Canada, the province of Quebec has just drafted a potential charter of values: a secularist manifesto supported by its three political parties and the majority of its residents.

The charter would ban the ostentatious display of religious symbols in dress, to be applied to all public-sector employees, which include teachers, museum curators and daycare workers. It means no hijabs, turbans or big dangling cross necklaces. Little dangling cross necklaces are fine; and the crucifix above the speaker’s chair in the national assembly – that’s fine too.

Quebec, where many still harbour separatist aspirations, at the very least is keen to distinguish itself from the rest of Canada. They refer to their provincial parliament as the Assemblée nationale, a nation within a nation. For Quebec, desperate to define itself, this charter is a means of reasserting its power to determine the values of a province after a period where "religious accommodation" is seen to have gone too far.

Critics from inside and outside the province were quick to speak out; effectively it excludes those from particular religious groups from working in the public sector. There are, of course, many arguments to be made against this charter: it discriminates, it’s too subjective and there are already a few too many uncomfortable exceptions.

But on top of this, it positions Quebec and its cities as closed, unfriendly places where the government takes a heavy hand when it comes to defining what and who is accepted.

People are as globally mobile as ever and, as a result of economic crisis and increased direct competition between cities for new residents and investment, many around the world are reassessing where it is they’ve chosen to call home and deciding to pick up and move elsewhere. For this reason, cities such as Berlin, Tel Aviv and London are desperate to appear open, welcoming and dynamic – so why is Quebec heading down the opposite path?

Not only is the proposed charter of values discriminatory, it’s tarring Quebec with an image of restrictiveness and defensiveness. Religious dress is present in many modern capitals so why should Quebec be afraid of a doctor in a yarmulke?

Places are branded by more than their catchphrases – and the world is always watching. If the charter becomes law, Montréal may find more people choosing Toronto or Vancouver to call home – especially if they’re hoping for their son or daughter to become a surgeon.

David Michon is Monocle 24's managing editor.

Monocle 24

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