National Post Editorial Board August 27, 2013
NDP Federal Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair claims issue is moot, believing it’s against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Prime Minister Harper has been completely mute on the subject, the federal Conservatives believing it’s a debate for the provincial level to sort out.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since the RCMP decided it was no big deal for Baltej Singh Dhillon to serve while wearing his turban. Although the issue was passionately debated at the time, most Canadians quickly realized that a civil servant’s headgear hasn’t much to do with his job performance.
Yet all these years later, Pauline Marois’ provincial government in Quebec — along with many of her supporters, if polls are to be believed — still haven’t come to terms with this fact. The intolerant spirit behind the Parti Québécois’ proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” betrays the sort of sour antipathy toward religious symbols that the rest of the country said goobye to in the 1980s and ’90s.
According to a Journal de Montréal report last week, Ms. Marois’ government intends to pursue legislation such that “public employees, including civil servants, judges, police, doctors, nurses and teachers, would be forbidden from wearing ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa, the Muslim hijab and the Sikh turban.” It’s hard to say whether Ms. Marois is a genuine xenophobe looking to sanitize the province’s workforce in her own secularist Québécois image; or whether she is merely seeking to stir up her nativist base with an ugly wedge issue; or a little of both. But whatever her motivation, the legislation is an insult to Canadian values.
The idea that a teacher, daycare worker, transportation ministry clerk or nurse should have to choose between public service and a publicly visible symbol of his or her personal faith is counterproductive in every economic and social sense. You can’t help immigrants integrate by putting barriers between them and the public workforce. And when outraged emergency room surgeons and other sought-after professionals consider leaving the province rather than comply with a discriminatory law, theory again collides with reality. When you’re wheeled into the McGill University Health Centre in critical condition, do you want the best surgeon, or do you want the one who best conforms to some politician’s conception of “Quebec values”?
In the face of this demagoguery, it is heartening to see some prominent figures criticizing the idea. That includes federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who suggested people were “laugh[ing] at Quebecers,” and renowned philosopher Charles Taylor, who called Ms. Marois’ plan “Putinesque.”
Unfortunately, NDP leader Tom Mulcair, consistent with his overall pattern of running scared from anything that might offend the lowest common denominator of Quebec public opinion, has refused to denounce Ms. Marois’ initiative. He broke his silence on the issue on Monday — but only to claim that the whole matter is moot, since the new law would be contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That’s an extraordinarily silly thing to say given that Ms. Marois would be only too pleased to trash the Charter if things came to that. (Even Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault, who effectively holds the balance of power in Quebec’s minority legislature, says that he would urge the use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to protect the sections of the Charter of Quebec Values that he supports.)
As for the federal Conservatives, they have been completely mute — except for a vague tweet last week from Jason Kenney. “It’s a debate that will occur at the provincial level,” was all the Prime Minister’s Office would say. Meanwhile, Andrew Bennett, appointed as Canada’s first “ambassador of religious freedom” by the Conservatives amid much fanfare, refused to comment — because he has eyes only for threats to religious freedom that take place outside Canada’s borders. So, if a law such as Ms. Marois’ were being enacted in, say, Rhode Island, his office would be all over it. In Quebec? Not so much.
This is becoming a farce. Both the NDP and Conservatives trumpet their concern for human rights. Yet here we have a clear case of a xenophobic provincial government trying to restrict the religious freedom of Canadian citizens, and the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition both do nothing but hum and haw. It is a pathetic display of political cowardice, and one that voters should remember, come the next election, when both men sing their well-rehearsed odes to “Canadian values.”