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October 8, 2013

Politicians reject Quebec Charter but not Harper

The Canadian Charger

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Mary Smith has cancer. Chemotherapy has caused her to lose her hair, so she wears a head scarf. No problem under the Quebec Charter of Values. On the other hand Mariam Mahmoud can't wear a scarf? But suppose she also has cancer? And if she is wearing the scarf, how can you tell whether she has hair or not?

It is interesting to see the politicians lining up on the Charter.  Former Parti Québécois premiers have expressed serious reservations, if not outright rejection.  Let’s start with Jacques Parizeau.

Parizeau was premier back when Quebec voted against separation in a squeaker of a vote.  At the time, he was accused of being a bigot when he blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote.”  Well, now he may have redeemed himself.  He pointed out that Quebec’s priests and nuns abandoned their garb without any laws.  The implication appears to be that religious minorities may eventually do the same if there is no fuss.

He said that support for the Charter is “understandable” because of Islamophobia, which is fed by the constant news about terrorism around the world, but he points out that this is a distorted picture: Muslims in Quebec came to live in peace.  The Charter of Values will only drive new Canadians into the federalist camp.  “In effect, federalism is presented as their real defender.”

Lucien Bouchard and Parizeau both favor something like the Taylor-Bouchard position—no religious symbols on apparel for people in authority—police, prosecutors, jail guards, the president and vice-president of the National Assembly, and judges.  No restrictions on anyone else. 

Lucien Bouchard’s brother Gérard was half of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission.  Bernard Landry was a bit more vague when interviewed in the media.  He called on the PQ government to “improve” the Charter by taking into account the suggestions from the other two former PQ premiers. 

Landry also declared that Quebec “is not and should not be multicultural.”  I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon showing the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, with Indians watching from nearby.  One Indian comments to another, “There goes the neighborhood.” 

Turning to the federal scene, Brian Mulroney declared, “If you want to build a dynamic, inclusive society, you’ve got all the instruments at hand.”  The Charter “limits that and sends out what I consider to be a negative, inappropriate signal to immigrants and to the vast immigrant communities that are bringing prosperity to Canada.”

Jean Chrétien said that any Quebec Charter will have to conform “to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” which was adopted when he was Justice Minister.  He declared that he “fought my whole life” for “equality in all its forms.”

As for Stephen Harper, he said that he does not expect the current Charter to pass in this minority Quebec government.  However, “If the Quebec legislature were to adopt anything that ultimately violates Canadians’ fundamental constitutional protections from discrimination, our government will take whatever action is necessary.”

So what might the outcome be if Quebec adopts the Taylor-Bouchard position?  One possible outcome might be for the courts to throw out that new Quebec law.  Then, especially if the PQ has a majority government, that government might well say something like this:  “We bent over backwards to be fair, and this is what we get from a federal government that refuses to accept our distinct society and its right to defend our culture and values.  So we will invoke the notwithstanding clause.” 

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