By Richard Forbes.
You’ll find no support (at best, sympathy) for Bill 62 in this editorial. The Couillard government’s controversial “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” also known as Bill 62, is a heavy-handed bludgeon against religious accommodation in desperate need of a justification, the full brunt of which is aimed at a small ethnic minority of women in Quebec.
Not a day passes by without the bill’s dissembling and contradictory logic being mortally challenged – or outright rebooted by its proponents in vain. It’s a religious neutrality law that defies the division between church and state in the name of saving it, targeting the practices of a religious minority with state intervention. It’s a feminist law that denies women equal access to public transport and public services as basic as an ER visit or a library checkout under the pretense of liberation. It’s a security protocol that leaves some women less safe, raising the potential for harassment and violence. The proposed legislation is as ghoulish as it is ill-defined and cruel as it is crypto-ultramontanist.
But alas, I must confess, dear readers, as I only have a degree in political science – not tasseography – your interpretation of the bill’s scope of effect is as good as mine. The latest explanation from Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée suggests the new law will not carry with it any punitive sanctions or result in a denial of emergency services. A comforting clarification if it were not muddied and deeply undermined soon after by Vallée’s comical statement that no sanctions would be needed because no sanctions were needed for those obeying the law! Also contributing to the mystery surrounding Bill 62 is the religious accommodation exemption outlined in Vallée’s conférence de presse loufoque; given rolling back religious accommodation is the general premise of the bill, to then offer a religious exemption feels inherently empty on the province’s part.
As it stands, Bill 62 has all the makings of a grave challenge to Canadian federalism, not unlike Bill 101 or the Padlock Law before it: as Lisée’s Péquistes chide the Quebec Liberals for “caving” to pressure from English Canada in moderating the bill, commentators from the rest of Canada have hotly condemned the decision and called for an intervention by the courts. It’s worth remembering that in 2014, Philippe Couillard himself accused the Parti Québécois – then the governing party – of picking a fight with Ottawa over their own dubious religious neutrality law in the hopes of raising leverage for a new sovereignty referendum. But now as premier, Couillard has found himself in the terrible position of having to pick that exact fight, or let the PQ and the CAQ fight it for him for their own ends. He’s since challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “read the bill,” while refusing to rule out using the notwithstanding clause to save the law from being struck down by a successful Charter challenge.
As a strong supporter of multiculturalism, diversity and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Trudeau himself will naturally feel most comfortable voicing his opposition to the new law than not. But there remains the open question of whether in Justin Trudeau, an unabashed opponent of Bill 62 is truly desirable or even necessary? The country has many a vocal opponent of the bill’s failings, but only one prime minister. As leader of the country – and as popular in Quebec as Bill 62 is or more (see the latest by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean) – Trudeau may find he is ideally positioned to act as the ‘referee’ that Canada so badly needs in this instance between the disparate forces and divisions in our society that have formed in light of the bill’s passage and the oft-unconstructive conversation that it has generated nation-wide.
To Quebec, Trudeau should urge for a clarification of the bill – its scope, its intent – as he already has (“You call that a clarification?“). A good referee can be expected to explore the rules of the game, carefully sizing up the legal space available; a Charter challenge seems inevitable at this point. Likewise, the federal government can and should take steps to protect the individual rights of minorities, especially from consequences of the law that (we can only hope) are unintended such as street harassment, abuse and dependency. When the time is right, an emotional appeal to Quebecers from the prime minister to rethink the spirit behind the bill seems appropriate too.
To the rest of Canada, Trudeau can urge Canadians to temper the odium that some have directed to a province as a whole (Quebec), especially on what can be a complicated cultural issue for many inside and outside of Quebec. Hostility is the fuel of nationalism: attacks on a people as a whole provoke a response as one, producing an antagonism unconducive for independent thought and personal reflection. The prime minister would not be wrong in reminding everyone that the line between pro-multicultural and anti-Quebec is a line best left uncrossed; especially not when the ultimate benefactors of such rhetoric are the souverainistes and those that hope to drive a wedge between our country.
The beauty of Canada’s federalism is it allows provinces to make their own mistakes. It has never been a design flaw, it’s a feature. The reality of Bill 62, its true effect without intervention, will speak louder and more compellingly to Quebec than any op-ed columnist, English or French, ever could. For instance, support among Quebecers for the PQ’s Charter of Values waned when its constitutionality was challenged and the details of its wide-ranging consequences began to take shape. Let the law’s consequences serve as a lesson not just to Quebecers, but to so many Canadians outside Quebec who share similar convictions: enforcing cultural obligations is strikingly less democratic in practice than it may seem in the abstract to those who entertain religious non-accommodation as a means of protecting and nurturing a democratic and egalitarian culture.
Behind all of these proposals – the PLQ’s Bill 62, the PQ’s Charter of Values, the CAQ’s Charte de la laïcité – is a shared raison d’être: Quebec’s continued resistance to multiculturalism. Lamenting the state of affairs, I submit: I wish some day, Quebecers will come to regard multiculturalism, not as a foreign idea, but an idea that belongs to them just as much as it belongs to the rest of Canada; multiculturalism is the brainchild of Canadians, some English – but many of them, gloriously French.
Contrary to those that characterize multiculturalism as an “English Canadian” idea, multiculturalism was not always popular in English Canada: it had its detractors and it still does, its support only comes from having proven itself. Over the past few decades, it has proved a romantic but successful way of organizing our society around a civic principle that brings with it, cohesion and respect, without fomenting the sectarian violence, radicalization, and terrorism we’ve seen under Europeian integration policies. The ‘interculturalism’ pushed recently by some in Quebec, especially New Democrats, is nationalism by any other name – a compromise between ethnic and civic nationalism, more ethnic than civic. The failure at hand is the pre-mature rejection of multiculturalism; interculturalists are simply wrong to suggest, as they have, that multiculturalism need be morally relativistic or intractable on linguistic diversity – not when multiculturalism is an extension of universal liberal and democratic values.
Perhaps if Quebec were to give multiculturalism a chance, it might find it could make it work for its society. Regrettably, our country is too often stuck in the position of holding two separate conversations: we talk at each other, but rarely to each other; we let the regional demagogues among us speak for us, voices that appreciate neither civility nor nuance. This revolving door of cultural initiatives and the resulting national drama is a failure of ours to listen and understand. The rest of Canada has neglected to communicate the real value behind multiculturalism and its suitableness for Quebec, while Quebec is often guilty of being too quick to dismiss calls for accommodation on the grounds that those making them are ignorant of Québécois history and society. I’m afraid I disagree with Pierre Trudeau, Quebec is a very distinct society – it’s just not that distinct. It’s still capable of the same fear, the same love and contempt, pride, resentment and hope – it may not share a lot with the rest of Canada, but it does share the human experience. Together, we have much to learn.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.