After the Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois slipped into office with a minority in the fall of 2012, there was a curiously muted reaction both in Quebec and the rest of Canada – unlike the mingled expectation and dread that followed the first PQ victory in 1976 and the PQ’s second coming in 1994. In their initial instances, Péquiste victories bore the seeds of potential sovereignty and the breakup of Canada. Premier Marois rouses few expectations and even fewer fears. The PQ is no longer the flag bearer of a radical project but just another political party, one that bears the same scars of popular distrust that afflict all parties these days.

Once in office, the Marois government did set about trying to poke the slumbering dragon of English Canada. Presumably this was on the principle that provoking Anglo anti-Quebec sentiments is the best (or only?) way of rousing its own sovereigntist base at a time when the sovereignty option has been sinking in public enthusiasm. But most English Canadians now seemingly care as much about Quebec as most Québécois care about English Canada: the two solitudes have grown even more indifferent to each other. This may be deplorable, but it perversely aids national unity. The PQ’s efforts to pick a quarrel (like removing the Canadian flag from the National Assembly) were met with a shrug from les anglais; instead of rallying, the sovereigntist ranks continued to doze.

All this changed abruptly when the Marois government announced its intention of introducing a “charter of values” that was supposed to express the Quebec identity into which immigrants are to integrate. Chief among these values is laïcité or the secularity of Quebec society after the Quiet Revolution. Once as priest-ridden as de Valera’s Ireland or Franco’s Spain, Quebec is today a society not only thoroughly secular but proud of it. But the PQ’s proposed charter speaks not to that confidence but to the insecurity some feel in the face of newcomers with different cultural values. Such insecurity led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation.”

What stands out in the charter are provisions that would forbid public sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab, the turban or the kippah. The addition of “large” crucifixes to the proscribed apparel list fooled no one. The main point is to target Muslims as the group that most focuses fears of the Other: the steadfast refusal of the PQ to remove the large crucifix that Maurice Duplessis long ago hung above the Speaker’s chair in the Assembly resolves any doubts about the privileged position of Catholicism in Quebec laïcité.

With this, all hell broke loose. As Marois and her minister Bernard Drainville no doubt anticipated, English Canada finally erupted. What they did not expect was the negative reaction in Quebec, not only from the usual suspects in the anglophone and allophone communities but also from within the ranks of the PQ itself and the wider academic and journalistic intelligentsia, the very milieu most friendly to the idea of sovereignty. The Bloc Québécois expelled its only woman and only ethnic-minority MP, Maria Mourani, from its shrunken caucus in Ottawa after the Lebanese-born writer and activist (who often wears a crucifix around her neck) condemned the proposed charter as an insult to religious minorities and a worrying sign that ethnic nationalism was overtaking the sovereignty movement. Then former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau (he of the infamous “money and the ethnic vote” speech after the 1995 referendum), Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry weighed in with stinging criticisms.

Critics suggested that the charter is a solution in search of a problem. Like the town of Hérouxville that barred shari’a law despite having not a single Muslim inhabitant, the PQ was identifying an issue – the imposition on the secular state of minority religious control – for which there was not a tittle of supporting evidence. Any public servant who is unable impartially to fulfill their responsibilities as a result of their religious beliefs can be disciplined or removed. What the charter would do is target public servants not on the basis of what they do, but on suspicion of what they might do. By suggesting that this is not discrimination against minorities so long as minority employees divest themselves of any visible indications of their faith, the PQ denies the obvious. In other words, this is a Quebec equivalent of the old, discredited U.S. policy on gays in the military: don’t ask, don’t tell. That piece of hurtful sophistry doesn’t fly any better in Quebec than in America.

Another argument put forward by some feminist supporters of the charter is equally demeaning. They would have it that Muslim women must be protected by law from submitting to the “patriarchal” imposition of the veil. That non-Muslim feminists would deny Muslim women the choice of what they wear is an unusual twist on “feminism.” If the charter comes into effect in its present form, the clear result would be to deny employment in the public sector to Muslim women who choose the hijab.

English Canadian indignation could be dismissed. After all, was there not a protest a few years ago against Sikh RCMP officers donning turbans instead of traditional Mountie hats? And yet the comparison of Quebec with the rest of Canada on treatment of minorities is one that Quebecers might prudently choose not to pursue. Alone in the Western world, Canada has not produced a racist, anti-immigrant right-wing national political movement. The rise of the Reform Party in the 1990s could have spurred this ugly variant of conservatism, but it notably did not. The Harper government, far from encouraging anti-immigrant sentiments, has actively and successfully wooed immigrant community support.

In Quebec, on the other hand, anxieties over immigration helped fuel the fast-rising, fast-falling and now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec party. The ADQ experience has current echoes in the Coalition Avenir Québec that competes with the PQ for votes in rural and small-town francophone Quebec where there are few immigrants but many fears of those who are not pure laine. These are the ducks that the PQ has set out to hunt.

Contrasting reactions to multicultural immigration are hardly the result of English Canadian moral superiority. It is surely the lack of any clear idea of “Canadian” (as Gertrude Stein remarked of Oakland, California, “there’s no there there”) that contrasts with a much sharper sense of Québécois national identity, especially in the sovereigntist version. “Others” are inherently more threatening when “we” are clearly defined.

Yet this misses a further nuance. One of the most interesting findings of polling on attitudes toward immigrants across the wider Western world is that fear is most pronounced among those who have the least contact with immigrants, while liberality and openness is strongest where the concentration of immigrants is highest. Thus native Britons resident in multiethnic London are more at ease with newcomers than those living in parts of Britain with many fewer immigrants. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but tolerance. In Quebec, the charter controversy has revealed a sharp divide between Montreal and the rest of the province. Opposition to the charter is clear and articulate in Montreal, and tends to cross linguistic and ethnic divides. Outside Montreal, anxieties roused by the appearance of unfamiliar newcomers appear to have more play.

In the 2007 Quebec election, the ADQ captured almost a third of the vote by using the immigrant issue as a wedge driven between Montreal and the hinterland. The PQ is embarked on the same strategy, pointing to Montreal as the seedbed of foreign threats to the Quebec identity. It is not unlike what Duplessis did successfully for many elections in the 1940s and 1950s: mobilize the backwoods against Montreal’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and Communists, said to threaten the integrity of Catholic Quebec. Instead of the Padlock Law there is now the charter to keep Quebec safe. Will it work electorally for the PQ? Perhaps. If enough CAQ votes can be siphoned off, the PQ could even win a majority.

But the PQ is not merely an electoral machine like Duplessis’s Union Nationale. It is also the electoral manifestation of the sovereignty movement. Is this really the issue on which the PQ wants to wage war with federalism? When the PQ first came into office in 1976 it came with a compelling vision: sovereignty promised a better, more progressive, liberated Quebec. Now it promises to fight Ottawa for the right to be mean, self-centred and exclusionary. Has it really come to this?

The PQ perhaps had hoped to ignite a federalist-sovereignist controversy by invoking the notwithstanding clause to protect its charter or by provoking the federal courts to shoot down an unprotected charter. This strategy imploded when the Quebec Commission on the Rights of the Person reported that the PQ charter was clearly in violation of the Quebec human rights code, not just the federal Charter of Rights.

Until recently, PQ nationalism had been dominantly liberal and territorial, rather than narrow and ethnic. Despite good intentions, liberal nationalism never fully resolved the issue of the place of its anglophone, allophone and Aboriginal minorities. Now it seems that the Marois PQ is abandoning the effort and reverting to an older, more illiberal nationalism. The struggle over the charter of values is not only a struggle for power in Quebec. It is also a struggle for the soul of the sovereignty movement.