Harder: Three years on, Quebec’s law on religious symbols hampers our ability to defend global human rights

Of note:

Shortly after I retired as deputy minister of foreign affairs, a senior Canadian diplomat told me of a spat he overheard between a French reporter and an Iranian official on the issue of religious face-coverings.

The Iranian official was condemning a French law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the niqab in public when the reporter shot back that Iran’s restrictive dress codes for women amounted to much the same thing.

“Yes,” the Iranian official agreed. “The difference is that we have never promised anyone liberté, égalité, or fraternité.”

The hypocrisy alleged by the Iranian came back to me recently in advance of Thursday’s third anniversary of Quebec’s law on laïcité, Bill 21, which prohibits Quebec public servants such as teachers from wearing religious symbols while performing their duties.

The enactment of the law unsettled many Canadians in 2019, not least because Quebec overrode the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms through use of the notwithstanding clause. But the law has also had a knock-on effect by undercutting Canada’s international standing as a defender of pluralism — an obstacle which gets worse the longer the law is in place.

In a world where civil liberties become ever more restricted, the global community needs every credible proponent and protector of pluralism that there is, and Canada should be at the top of that list. But we degrade our position when we tolerate within our borders two classes of citizens: those who enjoy the full liberty to express their religion in their dress, and those who do not.

Consider the position of Canadian diplomats who might want to press Russia for its arrest of demonstrators protesting the invasion of Ukraine, or protest the crackdown on freedom of expression in Hong Kong or censure the treatment of Uyghurs in China? Will we have maximum credibility when we speak?

Not unless we clean up our own house.

One place to start is to guard against becoming so accustomed to measures such as the Quebec law that we no longer speak out against them. That means making our voices heard not only on anniversaries, but regularly and in as many forums as are available to us.

A compromise of any civil liberty becomes more offensive the longer it remains place. At all costs, we must refuse to become desensitized to rights’ violations simply because they have been with us for an extended period of time.

Second, our leaders must stop shying away from criticizing the actions of other jurisdictions in the hope that staying silent will lead to acquiescence when and if they decide to abridge rights in their home jurisdiction.

Provincial premiers muse far too often these days about using the notwithstanding clause, a habit that will over time erode Canadians’ resistance to its use. Since the day three years ago when Quebec invoked the clause on religious symbols, Ontario has done the same on third-party advertising laws. Quebec also invoked it pre-emptively in the passage of Bill 96 recently, the bill designed to reform the Charter of the French Language.

To be sure, the law on the wearing of religious symbols is not the only example where Canada has fallen short on the protection of rights, and our opponents will remind us of those historic deficiencies when we try to shine a light on wrongdoing outside our nation. Witness the treatment of Indigenous Canadians in residential schools, which has already been the subject of a request by China and its allies for an independent investigation.

We can’t change the past. What we must do now is take every effort possible to clean up our act in the present. If we don’t, we will end up with a patchwork quilt in our own country, without a leg to stand on when advocating for equality in other parts of the globe.

In failing to get tough with ourselves, we will do a disservice to those millions of people fighting the good fight against authoritarian regimes in their own countries.

Peter Harder is a former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and former government representative in the Senate.

Source: Harder: Three years on, Quebec’s law on religious symbols hampers our ability to defend global human rights

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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