Quebec's Human Rights Commission has taken the highly unusual step of commenting on a government proposal, delivering one of the most forceful rebukes yet to the Parti Québécois' Charter of Quebec Values. According to the Commission, the values charter would represent "a clear break" with Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and violate Quebecers' fundamental rights.
Regarding the proposal's most controversial aspect, a ban on religious accessories for public sector employees, the Commission finds that it "would not withstand a court challenge" and "could not be valid without resorting to the notwithstanding clause." The Commission affirms that such a prohibition is based on the flawed premise that an employee of the state who wears a religious symbol is necessarily biased or engaged in proselytization. Thus, it concludes that the values charter "misinterprets the duty of state neutrality."
Indeed, the state is neutral if its rules apply equally to everyone, and are enforced without favouring one group over another. If, for example, Hindus had to undergo a more strenuous driving exam, or Jehovah's Witnesses had to pay higher taxes, that would be a lack of state neutrality. But an accessory worn by an employee does not in itself compromise the neutrality of an institution. As long as judges with kippas enforce the Civil Code and not the Torah, and as long as teachers in hijabs follow the provincial curriculum and not the Koran, state neutrality remains unharmed.
Moreover, the Commission has extended its criticism to other elements of the PQ's plan. For instance, it questions the need to revise the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to ensure equality between men and women, given that gender equality is already guaranteed by the Charter, and was re-emphasized in 2008. The Commission also expresses concern that formalizing the guidelines for evaluating religious accommodation requests -- notably based on imprecise notions such as "fundamental collective values" -- would risk complicating accommodations for others, such as the disabled.
What is more, the admonitions of the Human Rights Commission are only the latest, and most vehement, in a comprehensive succession of disapproval from the Quebec Federation of Women, the Quebec Association of Health and Social Service Institutions, Amnesty International, all of Montreal's main mayoral candidates, and three former leaders of the Parti Québécois.
Regrettably, the federal Conservative Minister responsible for Quebec, Denis Lebel, has resisted the trend, saying that the Marois government's initiative does not upset him. Yet, as the PQ's divisive and deeply disturbing proposal gains international attention and infamy, both the federal and provincial governments must ensure that the reputations of Quebec and all of Canada as open, welcoming, and inclusive societies remain intact. Even if, as the Commission suggests, the proposed values charter -- should it become law -- will ultimately be struck down by the courts, a great deal of damage will already have been done to Quebec's international standing and social harmony, and the felt apprehension and insecurity of minorities.
The federal government must therefore be unambiguous in its rejection of the values charter, and the PQ should heed the thorough and compelling warning of the Human Rights Commission, and reverse course.