Niqab ban harkens back to the dark days of Duplessis

Our attitudes haven't changed much from when we locked up Witnesses

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By Paul Waters - The handful of Quebec women who insist on wearing niqabs have done us all a service by unveiling just how weak-kneed and fragile is our commitment to personal liberty and religious freedom.
In fact, watching all the parties in the National Assembly gang up on a couple of dozen women reveals that in many ways, Quebec hasn't evolved much since the dark days of Maurice Duplessis. Bullying "outsiders" to protect "Quebec values" turns out to be one of the few traditional values to have survived the Quiet Revolution intact.
Back in the 1940s and '50s, of course, the "values" that Duplessis felt compelled to defend were somewhat different from today's. People went to church then, got married, and had a bunch of children (and were proud when some of them "took the veil.")
"Outsiders" were also harder to find. Quebec then was even less an immigrant's first choice than it is now, so "values-defenders" had to content themselves with venting their spleen on internal enemies. Jews, for examples, and Communists. There were university quotas for the former and government goon squads - aka the provincial police - to padlock the property of anyone suspected of being the latter, and a broad consensus to support both actions.
Religious renegades came in for special contempt. One of Duplessis's most famous victims - or martyrs, if you prefer - was a Beauce farmer named Aimé Boucher, a "Québécois de souche" in all things save one: He'd abandoned the faith of his fathers to become a Jehovah's Witness.
That was a tough choice in those days. Witnesses then, like Muslims now, were seen as a clear threat to the values Quebecers held dear and were routinely beaten and often had their bibles and magazines stolen and destroyed.
To their disgrace, the government and many members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were complicit in this bigotry. Distributing Watchtower could land you in jail.
In 1949, Boucher was arrested for distributing a pamphlet called Quebec's Burning Hate for God and Christ and Freedom is the Shame of all Canada, which outlined cases of Witnesses having their property seized and of being unjustly imprisoned. "All the French Canadian courts," the tract declared, "were under priestly thumbs."
The insults were too much. A Quebec jury convicted Boucher of seditious libel and the Quebec appeal court upheld its verdict. Fortunately for us all, however, the Supreme Court of Canada disagreed. Even without a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to guide them, most of the justices - though not all - could figure out that criticizing the courts was not sedition, but a legitimate protest. The "Quebec values" of the day took a hit and personal liberty took a giant leap forward.
And Boucher? He was home in time to offend his Catholic neighbours by not celebrating Christmas, as his religious convictions demanded.
Today's niqabis are victims of the same ugly reflex that landed Boucher and his fellow Witnesses in jail. When in trouble, bully a despised minority.
And sadly, the niqabis face the same implacable consensus. Polls show that more than 90 per cent of Quebecers support the National Assembly's proposal to refuse women in niqabs access to the government services their taxes pay for. Quebecers, it seems, are free to worship as they wish, as long as they don't offend some government clerk who wants to know if they're smiling when they ask for income-tax forms or try to register their vehicles.
In fact, many think Bill 94 doesn't go far enough. They'd like to see face veils banned everywhere and hijabs, or head scarfs, banned in public schools and in the public service.
But Quebec's revulsion doesn't make it distinct. Those numbers hold up across Canada. In fact, banning the niqab is one of the few things on which Quebecers and Albertans seem to agree.
What does set Quebec apart, however, is that this is the only province that has taken legislative steps to impose a dress code on its citizens. And in that, the Charest government, egged on by the braying of the opposition, has responded as it usually does - with the cowardice of born survivors. Duplessis would be pleased to see how well his successors have learned their lessons.
Tragically, others who should know better - sociologist Jack Jedwab, for example, and constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, and federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff - appear to have bought into the lie that consensus disinfects bigotry, that if enough people believe something fiercely enough, it must have merit.
But consensus never excuses wrong. It didn't when Duplessis was padlocking the property of suspected Communists and hounding Aimé Boucher and his co-religionists. And it doesn't now.
Paul Waters is a Gazette editorial writer.

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