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Quebec, Passing Bill 60 Will Send a Shameful Message

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When Quebec Minister Bernard Drainville tabled Bill 60 -- formerly known as the "Charter of Values" -- he said one thing that is undeniably true: The bill, should it pass, will serve to define the Quebec in which we want to live together. Regrettably, by enacting this law, Quebec would be sending very clear -- and very shameful -- signals about the kind of society we wish to be.

The Minister argues that the bill -- which, among other things, bans religious accessories in the public sector -- will enhance "cohesion," and has said that not wearing a religious symbol is a sign of respect for others, the logical corollary being that wearing one is somehow a sign of disrespect. His unmistakable message is that people get along better when they suppress their individuality.

Yet, even if widespread adherence to some blueprint of a prototypical Quebecer were a noble goal -- which it is decidedly not -- societies that have sought to impose conformity have not generally been pleasant places to live. Indeed, the only societies with greater problems than those that value religious diversity are those that do not.

It had been known for months that the Parti Québécois was planning to tell public employees what they can and cannot wear, on the flimsy pretext that the religious neutrality of the state cannot be achieved without religiously neutering its employees. However, the actual legislation goes even further, even establishing rules for lunchtime at daycare outlawing food-related practices that reinforce religious precepts. It is unclear whether this would bar a Hindu toddler from packing a religiously-motivated vegetarian sandwich, or simply require daycare workers to intervene should a child attempt to say a prayer before eating; either way, the state has no place in the lunchboxes of the nation.

Bill 60 would define Quebec as a place where fundamental freedoms can be infringed due not to necessity, but to inclination. Even the bill's supporters generally concede that there is no urgency to implement it, citing the principles they aim to protect -- such as religious neutrality -- without showing that these principles are under threat. Moreover, rather than empirically demonstrate the need for such a law, Minister Drainville has unapologetically declared that he has no idea of how many people in the province's public sector would be affected. The Quebec Association of Health and Social Service Institutions has reported that none of its members have ever had any problem with staff who wear religious apparel, and the Bouchard-Taylor Commission found -- after examining 900 briefs and 13 academic studies -- that the supposed crisis of religious accommodation was largely a "crisis of perception." While no right is absolute, essential liberties such as freedom of religion and expression must not be curtailed without demonstrable justification; in this case, such justification is demonstrably absent.

Finally, while this Bill may ultimately be defeated in the National Assembly or overturned by the courts, the entire debate over the values charter has already contributed to an unfortunate emerging definition of Quebec as a place where respectable people can agree to disagree about whether to defend minority rights. Yet, choosing whether to tolerate expressions of diversity - with all of diversity's vagaries and complications -- is not a simple matter of opinion. Respect for pluralism is a fundamental characteristic of a free society, and it must be championed by the government, not reduced to a question of personal preference -- or worse, vilified as a threat.

Indeed, Quebec should define itself as a place where religious pluralism is cherished, where diversity and harmony are not considered mutually exclusive, and where fundamental freedoms are defended with passion. As a matter of fact, Quebec already defines itself as such, and has since 1975 in our Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. It is a definition that Quebecers can be proud of, unlike that of Bill 60, which should be discarded -- definitively.

By Irwin Cotler and Michael Milech

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