Bernard Drainville, the Minister responsible for democratic reform, was scheduled to spend a quiet day in his riding on Thursday. Instead, he scrambled into damage-control mode, giving radio and TV interviews trying to downplay the importance of the blow the government has been dealt.
Jacques Frémont, the chairman of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, released a statement
declaring the proposal for a Charter of Quebec values would be a radical departure from the spirit and the letter of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The commission believes the only way the government could shelter the new law from court challenges would be to use the notwithstanding clause in section 52 of the human rights charter.
Under section 52, no provision of any other act passed by the Quebec national assembly may derogate from key rights guaranteed by the human rights charter, unless the notwithstanding clause is invoked.
Values charter to correct 'nonexistent problem,' Frémont says
Frémont dismisses the PQ government's suggestion that religious rights have been taking precedence over equality of the sexes.
"We've been extremely careful to try to find any case — and I mark my words, any case — where there has been a precedence of freedom of religion over the equality of men and women," he told me on CBC's Radio Noon on Thursday.
"We've not been able to find any case — whether in Quebec case law, Canadian case law or the administration of the the Quebec rights code," he said. "I don't know where the perception comes from, but the problem is just nonexistent."
Frémont argues that there is a delicate balance between individual human rights and collective interests. And in this situation, the collective interest of state neutrality when it comes to religion would take away fundamental individual rights.
"We're in a mood where the vision of the majority would quash the rights of the minorities, and that's where it is a radical departure from the Quebec Charter [of Human Rights and Freedoms]."
Only one opinion, Drainville replies
Drainville says the view of the commission is simply one opinion.
Other jurists, such as retired Supreme Court justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé support the proposed charter.
Drainville says there are no plans to use the notwithstanding clause to shelter the values charter from court challenges.
In fact, it would look pretty bad if you had to use a clause which overrides the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to protect a law which claims to assert Quebec values.
So if the law is ever adopted, we can expect years of costly court challenges.
The government won't be able to say it wasn't warned.