A rights debate gone wrong

In Quebec, the embrace of rigidly secular values can serve as a cover-up for xenophobia

Laïcité — débat québécois

Are some rights more important than others? Should gender equality prevail over, say, freedom of speech or religion? Experts on rights would consider the question irrelevant. Rights are rights are rights, jurists say, and there's no sense in establishing a hierarchy. But unfortunately, this question has jumped to the top of Quebec's political agenda.
If some prominent commentators, various lobby groups and, last but not least, the Parti Québécois, had their way, charters of rights and freedoms would be amended so that gender equality would prevail over all other rights. Quebec would become the only jurisdiction in the democratic world to consider that liberty of thought (something that's close to religious freedom) is a secondary value when it conflicts with women's rights.
The spark that led to the astonishing debate now under way in Quebec is, once again, an innocuous privilege granted to some members of Montreal's Hassidic community. When applying for a driving permit, they requested an instructor of their own gender for the practical test. They were allowed one when one was easily available, or told to come back later. Over six months, this happened six (six!) times. This became a tempest in a teapot, then the matter of a “national” debate when a newspaper revealed that the “reasonable accommodations” quietly practised on a case-by-case basis by the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec had been sanctioned by the province's Human Rights Commission.
Some issues never seem to die. Another debate over accommodation mobilized the province in 2007 after a few cases involving religious minorities received disproportionate exposure in some populist media. After extensive public hearings, the Bouchard-Taylor commission published a moderate and sensible report. It was widely thought the issue had been settled for good. Alas not. It simply had been buried.
When the so-called scandal at the SAAQ erupted, the government was introducing a bill on cultural diversity in the public administration (one of the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations). The Council on the Status of Women, a group that follows a radical feminist line, dramatized the SAAQ incidents, warned that women's rights were at stake and reiterated its old stance on the priority of women's rights over all other rights.
Various groups called for a charter on laïcité that would provide a framework for Quebec as a staunchly secular state. The PQ opposition, whose popularity has been declining for years, enthusiastically leaped on the vote-gathering issue, as did some labour leaders and popular commentators – even Conservative MP Josée Verner chimed in, saying “it should be women first.”
Like a rolling snowball gathering weight, the debate extended to the issue of whether Muslim head scarves should be allowed in the civil service and whether women should be allowed to wear the burka (as if our streets were full of women hidden inside burkas !) and whether a society should accommodate religious fundamentalists – a wearisome repetition of the arguments heard two years ago, as if nothing had been explained, let alone solved. Now, as two years ago, it's quite clear that, in some quarters, the embrace of rigidly secular values serves as an “honourable” cover-up for xenophobia.
Of course, there should be limits. Nowhere in Canada should female genital mutilation in the name of religious beliefs be tolerated. The push for the introduction of sharia in Ontario's legal system, some years ago, was mercifully thwarted. It's distressing to realize, in the wake of the aborted trial of two leaders of the Bountiful sect in British Columbia that polygamy could eventually be legal.
But what we're talking about here are a string of tiny accommodations that do not hurt anyone and do not compromise the fundamental values of a democratic society.

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