Yes, there are real prob­lems with Bill 21

Edmonton Sun - - COMMENT - FARZANA HAS­SAN fhas­[email protected] @Farzana­has­san1

The resur­gent Bloc Québé­cois is poised to per­form well in the election un­der its ar­tic­u­late and prag­matic leader, Yves-françois Blanchet.

It has suc­cess­fully pitched it­self to younger vot­ers by turn­ing away from ag­ing en­trenched sep­a­ratists. Re­cent polls in Que­bec put it be­hind only the Lib­er­als, and first among fran­co­phones.

Its broad mix of con­ser­va­tive and pro­gres­sive poli­cies makes it hard to pin down with stan­dard left/right la­bels — which may be a virtue on polling day. Sup­port­ing cli­mate change re­form is very global and 21st cen­tury, but its de­mand for Que­bec to have more say on im­mi­gra­tion may be seen as tra­di­tional and iso­la­tion­ist.

The same can be said for its sup­port for the con­tentious Bill 21, the sec­u­lar­ist ban on re­li­gious sym­bols for peo­ple in pub­lic of­fice.

This bill is anath­ema to Lib­er­als in Ot­tawa, but it is pop­u­lar in Que­bec. This is un­sur­pris­ing, be­cause France has a long history of en­cour­ag­ing pri­vate piety but pub­lic sec­u­lar­ism.

Pro­vin­cial Premier François Le­gault’s warn­ing for out­siders not to tam­per with the pro­vin­cial bill is hav­ing some ef­fect. Justin Trudeau is tread­ing lightly in his op­po­si­tion for fear of alien­at­ing vot­ers there, though he has ad­mit­ted the fed­eral gov­ern­ment “is not go­ing to close the door on in­ter­ven­ing at a later date.”

Of course, that means af­ter the election, as­sum­ing a Lib­eral vic­tory.

Con­ser­va­tive Leader An­drew Scheer has also been del­i­cately non­com­mit­tal, ex­press­ing sup­port for prov­inces to have the right to de­ter­mine some of their own poli­cies.

Bill 21 would pre­vent pub­lic em­ploy­ees from wear­ing any re­li­gious re­galia such as yarmulkas, hi­jabs or tur­bans dur­ing work­ing hours. It is likely to ap­ply to pub­lic ser­vants such as po­lice of­fi­cers, prison guards and pub­lic school teach­ers. It has taken plenty of crit­i­cism.

For ex­am­ple, Cal­gary’s Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi — who is Mus­lim — made no at­tempt to con­ceal his out­rage. He said, “It’s ter­ri­fy­ing. It is fla­grantly un­con­sti­tu­tional. It’s vi­o­lat­ing the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms in a re­ally, re­ally trans­par­ent way.” His city coun­cil con­curred: it voted unan­i­mously to back a mo­tion con­demn­ing Que­bec’s law.

Mayor Nen­shi is partly right. I have ex­pressed my ab­hor­rence for cer­tain kinds of re­li­gious garb in these pages many times. How­ever, the only re­li­gious gar­ments that should be banned are specif­i­cally those cov­er­ing the face. In ef­fect, these are just the niqab and burka, pri­mar­ily for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

I am no fan of other re­li­gious re­galia, be­cause I would rather we pro­claim our­selves sim­ply to be hu­man be­ings rather than Mus­lims or Jews or Sikhs, but this is surely a mat­ter for in­di­vid­ual pref­er­ence rather than gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence — ei­ther from Ot­tawa or Mon­treal.

This bill could never be im­ple­mented in any eq­ui­table way, partly be­cause of per­cep­tions and def­i­ni­tions. Imag­ine that two gov­ern­ment work­ers wear iden­ti­cal pen­dants. The first says she wears it be­cause she likes the de­sign, but the sec­ond wears it be­cause it con­firms her iden­tity as a fol­lower of the ob­scure faith the de­sign sym­bol­izes. Will only the sec­ond face a ban?

In any case, the bill’s fu­ture looks less than rosy.

It is likely to be le­gal rather than leg­isla­tive snags that pre­vent it from gain­ing trac­tion any time soon.

Que­bec’s Court of Ap­peal is al­ready hear­ing a chal­lenge which claims the Bill is un­con­sti­tu­tional, and oth­ers have been lodged.

It seems noth­ing will come of Bill 21.

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