THE BLOG

Quebec Is More Concerned With Separatism than Secularism

09/12/2013 09:06 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

There's a lot to hate about Quebec's now-officially-proposed ban on the wearing of "overt and conspicuous" religious headgear among provincial government employees, and lord knows our press and politicians have hardly been silent on the matter. But amid all the chest-clutching, spittle spray, and promises of a full-fledged federal legal challenge, a couple core questions remain.

#1: Does Quebec actually have the power to pass a ban like this?

Even the hardest-hearted jurist offering the narrowest reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would have to conclude no, any provincial statute demanding state employees abandon a sacred religious tchotchke as a prerequisite of employment is, in fact, brazenly unconstitutional.

Section 2 of the CORF holds that "everyone" enjoys "freedom of conscience and religion" in this country, as well as "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression," while Section 15 adds that everyone also has the right to enjoy "equal protection and equal benefit of the law" including -- here it comes -- "without discrimination based on ... religion." Premier Marois' favourite "right," on the other hand, the right to an aggressively irreligious public service that does not provoke "tensions and misunderstandings" about Quebec's delicate cultural identity, is noticeably absent from the document.

That being said, the Charter of Rights also contains our old pal the "Notwithstanding Clause," which grants provincial legislatures the power to enact laws that violate Section 2 and 15, so long as they're subject to legislative review once every half-decade. This is how the Quebeckers got away with passing their crazy French supremacist signage laws in the 1980s, laws which some observers have described as the discriminatory precursor to this current thing. It's an ugly fact about the Canadian political system that most prefer to forget, but it's not illegal to pass horribly bigoted laws in this country -- just difficult.

#2: Are the feds justified in pushing back?

It would seem. For whatever reason, Premier Marois has claimed she has no interest in evoking the Notwithstanding Clause to protect her headgear ban from judicial challenge, which makes the Harper government's pending legal case against it all the easier.

Should the ban pass, one imagines it won't be too difficult for the feds to find a turban, hijab, yarmulke, or crucifix-wearing Quebec civil servant who refuses to ditch the traditions of God for the whims of cesar, and sponsor that discrimination grievance with every resource at their disposal. Presuming justice works the way it's supposed to, the ban will then almost certainly be overturned by some manner of "court of competent jurisdiction," as explicitly allowed by Section 24 of the Charter of Rights.

Actually, maybe Marois' motivation isn't that mysterious after all. If we presume Quebeckers vote separatist because they genuinely believe their province is getting a raw deal staying in Canada, with part of that raw deal being the fact that the mean ol' Canadian government won't let them have the things they want -- like, say, a religious headgear ban backed by 69% of the public  -- then a heavy-handed federal lawsuit reenforcing this storyline might actually be in the Parti Quebecois' long-term partisan self-interest.

Or, as noted pundit Norman Spector less elegantly put it, the mere thought of a prolonged legal battle pitting popular provincial legislation against paternalistic federalies is basically "the PQ's wet dream."

#3: Are Quebec-federal relations doomed because of this spat?

Sure -- but no more than usual.

True, the entire Canadian national politico establishment has abandoned their earlier pussyfooting in favour of doubling-down as a unified force dedicated to crushing the domestic agenda of a freely-elected Parti Quebecois government, but c'mon, when has that ever not been the case?

Let's not forget that the PQ's main partisan rival, the Quebec Liberal Party, is already propped up by a mad coalition of federal Liberal, Conservative and NDP supporters, an implausible alliance which reached its crescendo of implausibility under the previous Liberal administration of Jean Charest, a former leader of the federal Tories whose cabinet included the current leader of the NDP.

While party politics in the other provinces have devolved to such an esoteric state, it's getting increasingly hard for the national parties to even know who to root for (seriously, "the Saskatchewan Party?"), the idea that everyone should hate the PQ on the grounds that there's nothing worse than separatism was a comparatively easy consensus.

So it's not like a previously happy marriage has been abruptly spoiled by a single heated disagreement. As I've noted before, the sheer contempt in which Quebec is held in the exasperated ROC is starting to achieve a sort of critical mass (particularly among Tories, who have proven themselves capable of winning a majority government without the province), and in some ways it's perhaps better to understand the virulence of the headgear-ban backlash as a product of this decreasing tolerance for the French province, period, as opposed to the merits of the ban itself, which, as I've also noted, isn't even that unpopular in Anglo Canada.

The desperate cry of any embattled tyrant is to denounce outsiders "meddling" in their sovereignty, and as the days (and lawsuits) progress, doubtless this will become Madame Marois' preferred line of defense for what she's already haughtily called Quebec's "own model" of immigrant assimilation.

But meddling goes both ways. For weeks now, this dopey story has been monopolizing the Canadian news cycle and consuming the disproportionate attention of the nation's ruling class.

Who's really smothering whom?