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04/25/2019 09:44 EDT | Updated 04/25/2019 09:45 EDT

The Values That Made My Family Feel Welcome In Quebec Are Under Attack

I worry about the ways Bill 21 will undermine the democratic rights and freedoms we hold dear.

Thirty years ago I arrived in Quebec with my young family as an immigrant. We chose to settle in Montreal and have been Quebecois ever since.

Egypt, along with the many other places I lived in the Middle East over the years, is a democracy in appearance only — your rights depend mostly on who you know and what social class you belong to. So, I was enamoured with Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Ehab Lotayef
The author's young family as they were when they arrived in Quebec, 30 years ago.

It was a great source of comfort to know that the Charter exists, and that it is not just a collection of slogans not worth the paper they are written on. It is a document that is actively applied to and equally protects everyone living in the province. As a newcomer and a person of colour, I took great comfort in the fact that the Charter is there to protect the minority from the majority, if need be.

If there was something I considered to be a contract between my family and our adopted homeland, it was the Charter. If there is a set of values we Quebecois can call "Quebec values," those would be the values found in the Charter.

The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was adopted unanimously by the Quebec National Assembly in 1975, 14 years before I arrived in Quebec, after extensive preparatory work under more than one government. It included unique protections that did not exist in other human rights documents in North America. It did not only cover civil and political rights, but also some important social and economic rights. It also is distinct in that it does not only protect citizens, but anyone in the province.

The CAQ is targeting venerable religious minorities to win support.

Yet, I was most inspired by its second item, which stipulates that one cannot watch passively when another's life is in danger. I hoped to witness the day when that principle would be extended to other situations when any harm, not just loss of life, is being inflicted on an individual or group. Unfortunately, today I am witnessing the opposite: the deterioration rather than the expansion of protections offered by the Charter.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to the Opposition during question period on April 10, 2019 at the legislature in Quebec City.

The CAQ government, through the proposed Bill 21 is making foul of the Charter and proposes to remove some key protections from it by having the subjective "state laicity" override the individual's fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association (as per Bill 21's sections 17 and 18). Moreso, Bill 21 (in section 29) explicitly overrides any religious accommodations granted in sections one through 38 of the Charter.

The CAQ is targeting vulnerable religious minorities to win support among certain segments of society, but the damage this bill will cause goes far beyond the erosion of some religious rights. The precedent of limiting the freedoms guaranteed by the Charter threatens our democratic system itself. If today the target is religious minorities, tomorrow it can be political dissidents or any voice that opposes those in power.

The Charter is a contract between Quebecois and their neighbours, and between Quebecois and the state. Neither side should have the right to break that contract unilaterally.

Ehab Lotayef
The author and his two sons in 1993.

Bill 21 also denies religious minorities the protections granted by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by evoking the notwithstanding clause within the bill itself (section 30). The notwithstanding clause, meant to protect a province from federal imposition, is used in this case by the CAQ government to violate the rights of some minority groups in Quebec.

The generation of Quebecois who wrote the Charter, those who witnessed its birth and those who took pride in its strength over the years since 1975 till today, regardless of their personal opinion about religious symbols in the public space, should stand shoulder to shoulder with the minorities affected directly by Bill 21, in opposition to the bill and in defence of the Charter.

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A democracy is flawed when the majority can simply toy with minority rights, as it wills. History has proven once and again that if minorities are not protected, democracies can crumble quicker than expected. What is happening in Quebec scares me as a member of a minority, and makes me worry for the future of our country.

Much more is at stake here than religious rights. Our future as a democratic and egalitarian society is at stake, and we will all be judged by history in the years to come. I hope that Bill 21 will never be adopted.

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