We wish we had been at the meeting when government lawyers explained to Premier Jean Charest just what was wrong with his hare-brained scheme to rank our rights.
We presume there was such a meeting, because the bill introduced in the National Assembly last week is a pale shadow of the shocker Charest unveiled Oct. 9. He said then that cabinet didn't need to wait for the report of the Bouchard-Taylor commission to set priorities by which religious freedom would be subordinated to gender equality in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Well, he should have waited for something. The way human rights work was set out in the 1993 Vienna Declaration of a United Nations Conference on Human Rights: "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." Canada was a signatory. There can be, in other words, no ranking of rights.
Interesting legal cases - and good news stories - arise when rights collide and a judicial decision must be made: How can we square the two rights in question? Take for example Quebec's kirpan case: the right to religious freedom legitimizes the wearing, by some devout Sikhs, of a ceremonial dagger; The right to safe schools meant to some parents, at least, that nobody has the right to carry a weapon in school. The courts weighed the evidence - there is no known case of a kirpan being used in a school assault, for one thing - and imposed a compromise: The kirpan can be worn inside a student's clothing, provided it's sewn into a fabric pouch, difficult to get at in a moment of anger. That's how rights disputes ought to be settled.
Charest's October promise was following the cue of the Conseil du statut de la femme, which had called for subordination of religious rights to gender equality in its presentation to the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
Not long after Charest presented the measure, reality seems to have set in. The bill presented last week by Christine St. Pierre, the minister for women's issues, is quite different from what Charest spoke of so bravely. Bill 63 just adds a mention of gender equality in the preamble to the Quebec Charter and adds an interpretive clause: "The rights and freedoms set forth in the charter are guaranteed equally to women and men."
St. Pierre proudly presented this as "the result of my eight months of work." As it happens, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms already contains almost exactly the same provision. ("Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.") After 15 minutes with Google, any undergraduate could have proposed what St. Pierre has proposed.
The reasonable accommodation debate is serious. There's no place in it for simple-minded grandstanding. Charest and his minister have pulled back from a foolish promise. That's good, but a moratorium on empty crowd-pleasing gestures would be even better.