This week, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, seeking to strengthen the principle of sexual equality against a perceived assault by religious groups, issued its own set of "reasonable-accommodation" rules. And rules is the operative word.
The council wants the Quebec government to enact legislation requiring all public and para-public workers desist from wearing clothing, headwear or jewellery that would indicate in any obvious way the person's religious affiliation. From bus drivers to teachers to Superior Court judges, no one would be allowed to present themselves in their workplace dressed in a way that makes their religious beliefs known to others.
If it were up to the council, no turbanned Sikh would be allowed to serve in the provincial Sûreté du Québec, even if the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a Sikh's right to wear a turban as an officer with the federal RCMP.
It is of no relevance to the council that for the Sikh officer who fought for the right to wear a turban, that right equalled a welcome into the larger Canadian community. "Having been able to wear the turban in RCMP meant an acceptance into Canada's mainstream," said at the time Baltej Singh Dhillon, the RCMP officer. "I just wanted to join the RCMP as an officer and to be able to work with equal respect and dignity in every way."
But for the women's council, there are three principles that trump everything else. These principles were announced by Premier Jean Charest when he created the commission on reasonable accommodation: separation of church and state; the primacy of French; sexual equality.
On the issue of gender equality rights, the council believes it should never be subject to any kind of "accommodation." The council intends to ask the Quebec government to amend the Quebec charter of rights to reflect the primacy of equality rights, specifically over the right to freedom of religion.
Council president Christiane Pelchat gave two examples of cases which, she said, prove the need to entrench the primacy of gender equality rights: Requests by Hasidic men to be tested by male driving inspectors only, on the ground such demands infringe on women's right to work. The second example concerned the decision by Elections Canada to allow Muslim women to vote with their faces veiled.
A veiled woman is de-facto proof of discrimination on the basis of sex, Pelchat said in a meeting this week with The Gazette's editorial board. It is as well a public message of female inferiority that a secular, democratic state like Quebec should not countenance in its employees.
Pelchat argued Quebec should not leave issues of male-female equality to the courts, to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But that is exactly what Quebec should do. The idea of imposing rules on what people can wear on the job, irrespective of whether their ability to do their job is in any way affected, runs counter to the very spirit of democracy that the council says it is upholding. Personal freedoms are very precious. To infringe them requires a very high burden of proof.