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Quebec's Job Is To Protect Marginalized Groups, Not Further Isolate Them

The obvious contradictions in the facts and intentions of Bill 62 expose Quebec, and Canada, to international criticism.

10/31/2017 14:39 EDT | Updated 10/31/2017 14:50 EDT
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Warda Naili poses for a photograph at a park in Montreal, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017.

Human rights defenders across Canada have observed with growing concern that we are not sheltered from the winds of intolerance blowing elsewhere in the world. The passing of Bill 62 has put a spotlight on the social tensions that exist in Canada regarding diversity and inclusion. Let me explain.

Recently, the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 62, a law aimed at achieving religious neutrality in provincial services. The sad irony of the situation is obvious: a legislative assembly limiting the fundamental religious freedoms of an already-marginalized group. Why? To ensure a religious neutrality that it refuses to impose on itself, as it keeps the crucifix in its chamber.

Yet beyond the irony of this message, there are also very real and clear consequences for people living in Canada. Approximately 100 women who wear a face covering in the province of Quebec have lost the right to public services should they insist on keeping their faces covered. All this without any proven justification. Human rights laws allow limits to how inclusive a law or policy needs to be, taking into consideration security, safety or cost. Yet, with this new law, no such justifications have been put forward.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee provides further details about how the government's controversial Bill 62 will be implemented at the legislature, as Justice Minister Yan Paquette, left, looks on in Quebec City, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017.

With even greater irony, the government has announced it may be willing to consider religious accommodations by exempting these women from their obligation to unveil on a case-by-case basis. Yet, this does not address the main issue. The fact, any limit on their fundamental rights should be the exception, not the rule.

Surveys have suggested that a considerable number of citizens actually favour the new law. Yet it is precisely for this reason that our human rights laws exist — to protect marginalized groups against the will of the majority. There is an obvious and worrisome disconnect between a Quebec (and Canada) that clearly and loudly boast the importance of fundamental rights and freedoms, while at the same time accepting a law that limits freedom of religion in such an unjustifiable way. If a democratic state chooses, for itself, to not favour one religion over another, that is one thing. But it cannot, at the same time, prohibit its citizens from practicing their religion without justification.

And what is the justification in this case? Why limit public participation for such a small group of women? How can the government justify further marginalizing an already-marginalized group? Is it not the role of government to protect these very groups?

A handful of women have been told to choose between their religious beliefs and their healthcare; between their religious beliefs and their public transportation; between their religious beliefs and their education.

These obvious contradictions in the facts and intentions of Bill 62 expose Quebec, and Canada, to international criticism. Up until now, Canada has been seen as a leader in human rights — a country where human rights is an integral part of our national identity. However, to maintain this reputation, we must be willing to recognize our own failings when it comes to human rights. In the past, Canada has been critical of other countries when they fail to defend marginalized and vulnerable members of their society. Yet, here Canada is, making headlines for a law that we would denounce if it have been adopted anywhere else in the world.

It isn't up to a national human rights institution to dictate the role of religion, secularism, or religious neutrality in any country. However, it is the role of institutions, like the Canadian Human Rights Commission, to expose the contradictions, observations and problems that may not be obvious to the majority, but that can have devastating consequences for a minority. A handful of women have been told to choose between their religious beliefs and their healthcare; between their religious beliefs and their public transportation; between their religious beliefs and their education. These are choices that no democratic state should impose on its citizens. Nobody should have to make these kinds of choices in an inclusive Canada.

Marie-Claude Landry is chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

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