Premier chooses posturing over courage

Accommodements et Charte des droits

Just yesterday, we were saying in this space that only courageous political leadership could calm Quebecers about matters of reasonable accommodation. Instead, we got political posturing from Jean Charest.
Refusing to await the findings of his own inquiry commission, and by all appearances stampeded by a public-opinion poll, the premier told reporters late Tuesday he wants the National Assembly to amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to make it state firmly that gender equality may not be eclipsed or compromised by any expression of religious freedom. (While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is entrenched in Canada's constitution and so almost impossible to amend, the Quebec charter is simple legislation.)
The premier was speaking after La Presse reported survey results showing strong majorities against a list of accommodation practices for minority faiths. He spoke after a Liberal caucus meeting that must have been interesting: Just before the meeting, Russell Copeman, MNA for Notre Dame de Grâce, told The Gazette's Kevin Dougherty any talk about amending the charter would be "premature." And after caucus, Christine St. Pierre, Charest's minister for the status of women, was not ready to discuss the issue with reporters.

What's all this about, if not narrow self-interested political calculation? Even if the government had discovered some current blatant discrimination against women, this would not be the way to address it. But in fact the best-known discrimination against any group of females in Quebec today might be the ban on the hijab in organized soccer. Should women's rights also be protected against expressions of secular "freedom," Premier?
It's reaching the point where there's no overstatement in the word "hysteria" in describing Quebec's reaction to minority religions. While nobody of significance in public life is proposing to expunge Christian symbols from our public life - have you looked at the Quebec flag lately? - there is certainly strong public resistance to other religious expression.
The Conseil du statut de la femme, which last month proposed the same amendment Charest wants, also called for a ban on religious clothing, headwear or jewellery in the public-sector workplace. This would, Muslim and Jewish spokespersons have noted, have the effect of keeping the devout from jobs in the civil service. There are shockingly few minority public servants now, as we know, but a measure like that would make the numbers even worse. Where will all this end?
Charest's mandate to the inquiry commission headed by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor began by asserting "Quebec society is attached to core values such as equality between men and women, the separation of church and state, the primacy of the French language, the protection of rights and freedoms, justice and the rule of law, the protection of minorities, and the rejection of discrimination and racism." But the tone of Charest's comments, and of Mario Dumont's on this subject, and of Pauline Marois's with her "nous," makes us fear they are questioning some of those "core values."
The Quebec charter already asserts "every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on race, colour, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap."
The Canadian charter devotes a section to gender equality alone ("Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.")
If the distinction between these two formulas were truly vital, we would surely have heard about it by now. But consider this excerpt from another important text: "All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis."

That's from the 1993 Vienna Declaration, which was adopted by the UN World Conference on Human Rights. As Montreal human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis argued on the page opposite just last week, the legal point here is "gender equality does not trump other rights. Other rights do not trump gender equality."
No such right is absolute. As the Canadian charter says, the rights and freedoms it enumerates are "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." When there's an argument, the courts decide.
Charest must know all this, or the government's lawyers must. Talk about amending the Quebec charter this way is political pandering, and it's truly alarming.

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