Quebec’s charter excludes most outsiders

  • September 5, 2013

The Quebec government’s intention to draft a Charter of Quebec Values was announced last year, but many details of how the charter will impact religious freedom were only leaked to the press in August. Reportedly, the legislation would ban most religious symbols from public institutions, and public employees would not be permitted to wear religious items such as hijabs, kippas, turbans and “ostentatious crucifixes.”

The ban would encompass all the province’s public services, such as day cares, schools, hospitals and government offices. However, the crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly and the cross atop Mount Royal in Montreal would remain in place because, according to the government, they are symbols of Quebec’s heritage.

Such a sweeping ban on personal religious symbols is an unacceptable restriction on religious freedom. In a society that guarantees freedom of religion, it is difficult to see how this ban could withstand a constitutional challenge. Canada’s understanding of secularism, among other elements, is that the state does not favour any one religion, but rather welcomes all. Few, if any, would see a ban on religious symbols as “welcoming.”

There have been a number of court and tribunal cases testing religious freedom, but almost all involved a second right or other factor that had to be balanced with it, such as safety, proof of identity or unacceptable levels of inconvenience to others. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Sikh ceremonial dagger could be worn in a Quebec school because no danger to others had been established. But in another case the court upheld the right of the Alberta government to require photo identification on the drivers’ licenses of Hutterites, despite Hutterite arguments that their religion prohibits them from being photographed.

Such conflicts are not uncommon in Quebec, where a fiery debate erupted earlier this year over a ban on wearing turbans on Quebec soccer fields. The turban ban was lifted by the Quebec Soccer Federation due to external pressure — but not before it made headlines around the world.

In Ontario, it is certainly not unusual to see headscarves in hospitals and other public services.

As Charles Taylor, co-author of the Taylor-Bouchard Report on Reasonable Accommodation said in response to recent reports about Quebec’s proposed restrictions, the fact that public institutions are expected to be neutral on religious matters does not mean the people working in them are.

“This will feed an attitude of exclusion. It will send a message to people who don’t feel comfortable here — who feel rejected in Quebec,” Taylor said.

He said immigrants repeatedly told him during province-wide hearings on reasonable accommodation that the reason they came here was for freedom: “Now we’re slamming the door in their face.” In another interview, he compared the approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Political analysts say the Quebec proposal is an attempt to feed off the “insecurities” of the province’s French Canadian majority, who some say feel threatened by the presence of minority cultures when their own birth rate is falling. If so, the proposal is still questionable as a vote-getter. While most polls show a fair amount of support for restrictions on religious symbols in public, they also show that most voters place greater priority on unemployment and overall economic improvement.

A sweeping ban on wearing religious or cultural symbols would limit employees’ religious freedom, and it would probably also increase the sense of exclusion felt by cultural minorities and religious believers. Quebec’s proposed charter of values clearly raises issues of religious freedom, and it also raises a second question: just how far can the state go in imposing religious conformity on its citizens? This question will undoubtedly be raised when the Supreme Court of Canada hears the case of Montreal’s Loyola High School, which seeks to teach the province’s required course on ethics and religious culture from a Catholic standpoint.

Many religious, education and advocacy groups, including the Catholic Civil Rights League, are participating in plans to intervene in that appeal.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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