Chris Selley: The right response to Quebec’s secular demagogues


Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital gave us a preview of a possible counter-strategy to Quebec’s proposed secularism charter this week: total refusal. It’s an excellent strategy.

QUEBEC – I suspect Quebec’s proposed secularism charter doesn’t say, and wouldn’t do, what a lot of Quebecers think.

“I don’t know if the leader of the Opposition and I live on the same planet.” These were the apt words of Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on Thursday, in the midst of a heated debate following the unveiling — at long last — of Bill 60, which would implement a charter affirming state secularism and equality, and “providing a framework for accommodation requests.”

Liberal house leader Jean-Marc Fournier had suggested, not for the first time, that the push for such legislation is based on “perceptions and impressions” rather than facts, and essentially amounts to a solution in search of a problem.

Ms. Marois, we are to believe, thinks allowing a teacher to wear a hijab or kippa in class is an opinion suited only to an extraterrestrial.

“Two words: Uncovered face. The principle is clear,” then-premier Jean Charest intoned in 2010, announcing legislation banning people from receiving government services while veiled. But if you went and looked at Bill 94, you found Mr. Charest’s clear principle described as a “general practice.” And there were specific criteria that allowed a different practice, such as if unveiling wasn’t necessary for “security, communication or safety.”

Now, after months of gnashing teeth, we have Bill 60, the governing Parti Québécois’ proposed secularism charter. It is safe to say Premier Pauline Marois and Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville are more committed to restricting minority rights than Mr. Charest was. But if we turn to chapter three, we find this: “Persons must ordinarily have their face uncovered when receiving services from personnel members of public bodies.”


“When an accommodation is requested,” Bill 60 explains, “the public body must refuse to grant it if, in the context, the refusal is warranted for security or identification reasons or because of the level of communication required.” It’s Bill 94 all over again.

André Pratte noted this and other disconnects in a piece in La Presse this week. Private companies doing government work, for example, might have to adhere to the new rules regarding religious symbols “if such a requirement is warranted in the circumstances, in particular because of the duration, nature or place of performance of the contract or agreement.” That’s not what you’d call specific.

And then there are the mind-boggling proposed restrictions on what children can eat in daycare centres: “A repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept, in particular with regard to dietary matters, must not be authorized if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept.” Hmm. Is young Mordecai becoming more Jewishas he eats his kosher lunch, or is he just eating his lunch? As Mr. Pratte said, “good luck to the inspectors” trying to figure that one out.

Good luck to all of them. Should this ghastly legislation ever pass, I suspect there would be enough uneven enforcement and outright flouting of the law to keep the Journal de Montréal’s columnist roster in crimson hysterics until retirement.

Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital gave us a preview of a possible counter-strategy this week: total refusal. According to its executive director, Lawrence Rosenberg, the National Assembly can pass whatever law it wants. The hospital won’t even dignify it by requesting a five-year exemption, as provided for in the legislation. “Since the bill is inherently prejudicial, there is no point in taking advantage of any clause that would grant us temporary, short-term relief,” he said.

This is an excellent strategy on several levels. One, it’s just nice to see people refusing to negotiate with demagogues. Two, it may well smoke out some of the less salubrious partisans of this fool’s errand, and make sane supporters think twice. Tania Longpré, the PQ’s candidate in the upcoming by-election in the Montreal riding of Viau, recently mused on Facebook about striking “Jewish” from the hospital’s name, banning employees from wearing Hasidic curls and outlawing circumcision.

And three, I very much suspect it’s a preview of what would happen throughout Quebec — certainly in Montreal — if this charter came into effect. It’s all very well to advocate one’s vision of society in the abstract. But when it came time for the first public-service manager to fire a valued employee who wears a kippa, or the first tearful single mother who wears a hijab, I think that manager would blink. I think the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique, the public sector union that astonishingly supports the charter, would reconsider.

I think that once the daycare inspector leaves, young Mordecai would still get his kosher lunch. I think sooner than fill out a Request for Religious Accommodation form 22-Q, in triplicate, and wait eight months for a ruling, the guy at the tourism bureau would just tell the woman in the burka how to get to the Métro. It’s an experiment Quebec hopefully never conducts. But if the PQ does get its charter passed, it might quickly discover just how tolerant most Quebecers really are.

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