The federal government can’t stand by when minority rights are being trampled

Photo by Katie Currid

By now Quebec’s Bill 62 has been fairly comprehensively discredited, in all its nastiness, its contradictions and its dishonesties. A law passed in the name of the secular state would leave intact such overtly religious symbols of the state as the cross on Quebec’s flag, or the crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly. In the name of religious neutrality, it bans the wearing of some religious symbols — those that obscure the face, like the niqab or burka some Muslim women wear — while ignoring others.

At the same time, to avoid accusations of religious discrimination, it extends to other face-coverings, e.g. sunglasses, that have nothing to do with religion — though it is explicitly called an “act to foster adherence to state religious neutrality.” Yet for all its emphasis on the state, it applies not only to providers of public services, but also recipients, which is to say not the state or its employees but ordinary citizens.

Far from defending religious freedom, then, it would radically restrict it. Far from protecting women from oppression by their own religion, as its apologists argue, it not only limits what they may wear in public, but in so doing arguably makes them more vulnerable than ever. Perhaps some women who wear the niqab or the burka do so involuntarily, but if so it is hard to see how denying them access to such life-expanding options as going to school or even taking the bus will help.

The right to go to school or to take the bus: in the history of civil rights in North America, these have a certain resonance. For all the belated attempts by the province’s Liberal government to clarify — women would, it now says, only be required to show their faces when getting on the bus, not for the duration of the trip, while those wishing to attend class could apply for special accommodation, on a case-by-base basis — the stark reality is a bill that, at best, needlessly singles out members of a religious minority for petty harassment and humiliation. Members of the same minority, you will recall, were just months ago victims of a mass murder in a Quebec City mosque.

The bill has met with its share of opposition in Quebec, though for different reasons: while civil libertarians, civic leaders and university administrations have denounced its excesses, the province’s two main opposition parties, the Coalition Avenir Quebec and Parti Québécois protest only that it does not go nearly far enough. It seems unlikely, then, that the remedy for this injustice will be found in Quebec.

The question is what other means might be found. Are we content, those of us living outside Quebec, that our fellow citizens should be treated in such a demeaning fashion, on the grounds that what happens in Quebec is none of our business? Or does living in the same country imply certain common understandings, however few, among them basic guarantees of equal rights?

To be sure, the law will quite certainly be challenged in court, under both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its Quebec analogue, and will in all likelihood end up before the Supreme Court of Canada. It is difficult to see how it could withstand such scrutiny; whatever watery purpose might be conjured up as a rationale, it would be a challenge to show how the law was likely to achieve it, still less that it did so in the least harmful way possible.

Should it be left at that? Wait for some member of the public to object at her mistreatment, then wait years more while the case grinds through appeal after appeal? Or does the federal government have an obligation to intervene in some way? In the early years after Confederation, that was exactly how the federal government’s role was conceived: to protect minorities from local majorities, if necessary by setting aside provincial legislation, under a power known as disallowance.

It’s been a long time since any federal government has exercised that power, of course: the Charter and the Supreme Court might seem to make it unnecessary. Yet it was not only by the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court that minority rights were upheld in the southern states: the offices of the federal government also proved necessary.

The feds would not have standing to challenge the law directly in court, but they could join a case brought by a private citizen as intervenors. More aggressively, they could refer the law directly to the Supreme Court for an opinion on its constitutionality, as they did in the matter of a previous Quebec law claiming the right to secede unilaterally.

I understand the arguments against this: that it would inflame federal-provincial tensions, perhaps even revive separatist sentiment. But we should understand what it means when we invoke such fears as reasons for inaction, as we have in the past. We are saying that the rights of the minority can be sacrificed in the name of “social peace,” or “national unity,” or whatever other euphemism we might devise for “we haven’t got the stomach for it.”

And however much we might prefer the courts to do the heavy lifting for us, we might not have that luxury. Already the opposition is pushing the Couillard government to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the event the law is ruled unconstitutional; the government, for its part, has not ruled it out. And what would we do then?

This article originally appeared in the National Post.

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