It’s not per­fect, but Trudeau should leave Bill 62 alone

New law is mostly rea­son­able and it’s what Que­be­cers want

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DAN DEL­MAR Face­book.com/DanDel­mar

Que­bec’s po­lit­i­cal class has been stum­bling through un­com­fort­able, of­ten un­pro­duc­tive cul­tural ac­com­mo­da­tion pol­icy de­bates for more than a decade, and now the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could ex­ac­er­bate ten­sions if it chooses to take ac­tion against the prov­ince’s re­li­gious neu­tral­ity law.

“As I’ve said sev­eral times,” said Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, “I don’t think a gov­ern­ment should be telling a woman what to wear or not wear.”

Sim­i­lar words were of­ten spo­ken af­ter the Parti Québé­cois un­veiled its dis­crim­i­na­tory Char­ter of Val­ues in 2013, but they were truer then. The Char­ter was re­leased along with a cringe-wor­thy guide to which spe­cific forms of re­li­gious garb would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate for pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, and it went far be­yond face coverings.

The PQ val­ues scheme was ex­pected, and per­haps meant, to pro­voke a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis; Couil­lard’s Bill 62 shouldn’t, un­less the prime min­is­ter in­ter­feres in cul­tural do­mains typ­i­cally del­e­gated to the prov­inces.

Un­for­tu­nately, with op­po­si­tion par­ties and me­dia in­ces­santly ped­dling eth­no­cen­tric na­tion­al­ism, so-called rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion is­sues re­main un­der pub­lic scru­tiny. The Couil­lard gov­ern­ment felt the need to leg­is­late an end to the de­bate this fall, rather than spar­ing Que­bec’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity more an­guish dur­ing an al­ready try­ing year.

Parts of the law are prob­lem­atic. It does not ad­dress the im­pro­pri­ety of the Chris­tian cru­ci­fix above the speaker’s chair in the Na­tional As­sem­bly. Ques­tions also re­main about the prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of its most con­tro­ver­sial re­stric­tions on the de­liv­ery and re­ceipt of pub­lic ser­vices for those wear­ing face coverings.

Nonethe­less, Que­bec Liberals crafted a mostly rea­son­able frame­work for deal­ing with a num­ber of re­li­gious re­quests, from school ab­sences to the con­tro­ver­sial niqab. In con­form­ity with at least the spirit of the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms, spe­cific gar­ments like the niqab or the even more re­stric­tive burqa were not cited by name.

Even so, the le­gal­i­ties of face-cov­er­ing pro­vi­sions are be­ing chal­lenged by two non-prof­its and Marie-Michelle La­coste (who con­verted to Is­lam in 2003 and now goes by the name Warda Naili), as is their right. How­ever, Que­bec ap­pears con­fi­dent that Bill 62 can with­stand a Char­ter chal­lenge.

As Trudeau weighs his le­gal op­tions, which in­clude in­ter­ven­ing in the ex­ist­ing case or re­fer­ring the mat­ter di­rectly to the Supreme Court, it’s im­por­tant to note that de­spite his im­pas­sioned de­fence of ad­her­ents of a mar­ginal re­li­gious prac­tice — one that is the sub­ject of tighter re­stric­tions in sev­eral Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tions and de­nounced pub­licly by many Mus­lim Cana­di­ans — Bill 62 does not “tell a woman what to wear.”

The bill pro­poses, and Que­bec’s Jus­tice Min­is­ter Stéphanie Val­lée later at­tempted to clar­ify, two core prin­ci­ples as it re­lates to niqabs and burkas: that pub­lic sec­tor work­ers not wear face coverings (af­fect­ing no civil ser­vants cur­rently), and that cit­i­zens re­ceiv­ing pub­lic ser­vices be com­pelled to prove their iden­tity by mo­men­tar­ily lift­ing the veil where vis­ual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is re­quired — ex­cept stu­dents, who, if the min­is­ter was un­der­stood cor­rectly, could be barred from at­tend­ing classes. Amend­ments are clearly needed, but Bill 62 isn’t as ag­gres­sive or heart­less as most crit­ics sug­gest.

And if all of this is still too of­fen­sive, the bill also al­lows for some ex­emp­tions for prac­tices stem­ming from sin­cere re­li­gious be­liefs.

By rid­ing a wave of out­rage over what amounts to a rel­a­tively mild piece of leg­is­la­tion af­fect­ing a hand­ful of Cana­di­ans — milder than what’s been ap­proved by the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights — Trudeau risks leav­ing Que­be­cers with the im­pres­sion their right to gov­ern their own af­fairs is oc­ca­sion­ally de­bat­able. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Que­be­cers and a clear ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans have been ex­press­ing dis­com­fort over re­li­gious face coverings to poll­sters for years.

In a prov­ince where it is of­ten still a civil vi­o­la­tion to dis­play mi­nor­ity lan­guage with com­pa­ra­ble promi­nence to French, it would be frus­trat­ing and po­lit­i­cally un­wise for a prime min­is­ter to choose a mar­ginal, fun­da­men­tal­ist re­li­gious prac­tice as the test case for ju­ris­dic­tional lim­its on cul­tural au­ton­omy.

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