The flag of Canada and the Flag of Quebec at Chicoutimi along the Saguenay River, Quebec, Canada Wikimedia Commons

Common sense waits in the wings

By 
  • May 15, 2019

Even those who resisted expansion of gay rights from the mid-1990s to 2011 ultimately conceded the absurdity of the U.S. military’s so-called “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy. 

The policy promised gay, bisexual and lesbian Americans freedom to serve their country’s armed forces. They just couldn’t say, or do, anything that disclosed their sexual orientation. 

It took more than 17 years of political and legal battles for the common sense realization to prevail that individuals unfree to speak about, or act on, their identities are not free to be their identities. The policy’s collapse was an abject lesson in the costly inanity of proclaiming and denying human freedom in the same breath.

It’s a lesson apparently unlearned, or quickly forgotten, by cohorts within Quebec’s political class. How else to explain their persistent efforts to add the new wrinkle of “don’t show/don’t wear” to the old debate around outward expression of personal liberty?

The latest gambit is Bill 21. Once passed, it will prohibit “visible and invisible” forms of religious clothing or symbols from being worn by employees in certain public sector workplaces.

The legislation has just gone through rapid-fire committee hearings, with only six days of public testimony. Fewer than 40 groups were invited to testify. Only two had more than remote connections with religious life. 

Among groups excluded was the English Speaking Catholic Council, which for 38 years has acted as “facilitator of collective action” in Quebec. Happily, those plucky anglo Catholics found a way to make their voices heard. While the ESCC wasn’t at the committee table, its concerns will be raised thanks to the Coalition Inclusion Québec. The grassroots group  held parallel “people’s hearings” on May 13. Briefs were gathered up for presentation to the committee. If other submissions were like the ESCC’s, whoever received them at the Quebec legislature better have been wearing asbestos mittens.

In respectful but unflinching language, the ESCC brief scorches not only the rationale behind the legislation but the dangerous folly of trying to enforce it. 

“The ESCC contends that this law is unenforceable and, worse, destructive of social inclusion and cohesion. The Council repudiates the notion that a free society requires protection from religion or religious expression. People of faith should not be viewed as a threat that needs to be cordoned off, or a blemish that needs to be hidden from public view.”

While there is agreement that previous legislative efforts to control religious dress were fostered by deeply troubling “unease and distrust” of Muslims in Quebec, Bill 21 goes even further. It conflates secularism and so-called laïcité to quash religious expression within public life.

Laïcité is not synonymous with secularism. It moves beyond the strict separation of church and State, the status quo (that is) now an accepted reality in Quebec, to a pejorative stance towards religious faith. It defines the proper milieu for religious belief, opinion and expression in such a repressive way as to make (them) unacceptable anywhere except behind the closed doors of private residences and places of worship.”

Compounding that is the incoherence surrounding which symbols or articles of dress will specifically be prohibited, who will enforce the prohibitions and how. Such an ad hoc approach is a breeding ground for inequality before the law, and for social discord among those affected and those spared, the brief argues.

“If it doesn’t matter whether the symbol is visible or invisible, if the size does not matter, then tempers and logic will fray at the notion that a Muslim woman must remove her hijab to enter the classroom, but an Orthodox woman need not remove a religious medal around her neck.” 

No one needs to ask twice where that risks leading. Yet no one seems able to tell the government how to change course and abandon this bill, either. 

Let us hope and pray — assuming that’s still allowed — we won’t have to wait 17 years before absurdity collapses and common sense prevails.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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