Who needs the accommodation commission?

The government is acting on the issue without waiting for the panel's report

Accommodements - Commission Bouchard-Taylor

The Bouchard-Taylor commission might be the first in Quebec history to have its report shelved even before it is written, and by the government that created it in the first place.

When Premier Jean Charest announced the creation of the commission last February, he said it was so that the debate on the accommodation of what he called "cultural differences" would be based on "facts rather than perceptions" and elevated "above partisanship."

And he implied that no changes would be made before the commission's recommendations, due next March, were "debated by all the political parties represented in the National Assembly."

Charest announced the commission with the apparent intention of taking the accommodation issue out of the election campaign he was to launch two weeks later.

If his government was re-elected, it could deal with the commission's report early in its new term, leaving a few years for the fallout to settle before the next election. If his government was defeated, accommodation would be somebody else's problem.

What Charest didn't count on was that the election would leave him at the head of the first minority government in Quebec since 1878, with the parties vying to defend the French-speaking majority against pushy minorities.

So the commission had not even begun its public consultations in September when the Charest government began to initiate changes in areas within the commission's mandate.

First, Immigration Minister Yolande James submitted a memo to the cabinet, disclosed last week, suggesting that immigrants might be forced into something resembling community service among francophones in order to learn Quebec values. Also, Le Journal de Montréal quoted a source in her department saying immigrants might be forced to settle in French-speaking regions.

Then, three weeks ago, Charest announced that his government would propose an amendment to the Quebec charter of rights to give the equality of women with men precedence over freedom of religion.

And now the minister for the reform of democratic institutions, Benoît Pelletier, has announced he intends to introduce legislation to take away the right of a Muslim woman to vote without first removing her veil in order to identify herself. (Instead, she must have another voter who meets the usual identification requirements vouch for her.)

Pelletier's legislation would be a response to a hypothetical question first raised by the media before the general election last March - and a solution to a non-existent problem.

To begin with, it's estimated that only about two dozen Muslim women in Quebec wear veils. Those who do have had the legal right to vote in Quebec without first uncovering their faces since 1999.

But, a spokesman for Quebec's chief electoral officer told me yesterday, none exercised it in the 2003 general election or subsequent by-elections.
And since just before the general election last March, the electoral chief, Marcel Blanchet, has exercised his legal authority to deny them that right, capitulating to protesters who threatened to disrupt voting by wearing masks to polling stations.

A spokesman for Pelletier said yesterday it has not yet been determined how the legislation will affect voters whose faces are concealed by bandages or masks for medical reasons, who now are allowed to vote without first revealing their faces.

But voters temporarily residing outside Quebec, such as snowbirds wintering in the south, and even prison inmates will still be able to obtain mail-in ballots. Election officials have no way of verifying who actually marks these ballots or whether they were "telegraphed"- sold, exchanged or given away first.

So once Pelletier's legislation passes, the Election Act will place less trust in Muslim women wearing veils than in prison inmates.

And snowbirds and inmates actually vote. In the March 26 election, 7,653 ballots were cast by voters temporarily residing outside the province, and 1,539 by prisoners.
Or at least those ballots were cast by somebody.
- source

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