There are two sentences that, when put together, signal danger in any society. The first is, “our country is for us” and the second is “our own culture and heritage come first”. I have heard them used to justify female genital mutilation (East Africa), xenophobic attacks against South Asians (migrant workers in Greece), and “corrective” rape (lesbians in South Africa).
Culture and heritage are important, but governments should not use them to justify rights violations.
Quebec is once again threatening to appeal to heritage and “values” and to disconnect “values” from rights.
I say “once again” because the controversy over Bill 60, the “Charter of Values” cannot be laid entirely at the feet of this government. It is the third in a trilogy of ill-considered efforts from both the PQ and the Liberals to play the identity card. In 2009, there was Pauline Marois’ Bill 391, An Act to assert the fundamental values of the Quebec nation. In 2010, the Liberals tabled Bill 94, An Act to establish guidelines governing accommodation requests within the Administration and certain institutions.
Equality presupposes a shared commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, not to any particular culture or heritage. Newcomers to Canada should have just as much right to hold onto their cultures as other groups, within reasonable limits.
And let’s be clear about what these “reasonable limits” are. Reasonable accommodation is a tool to create a level playing field. It gives people with disabilities, women with child-care responsibilities and, yes, people of faith, access to public social services and employment without discrimination. It must be offered generously, in a way meets people’s genuine needs.
The concept of excluding entire religious minorities from employment in the public service using a supposedly neutral rule about symbols is a shocking proposal because it fails to consider the effect of the rule. The Quebec government has said that it wishes to carry out these debates in the spirit of respect.
These measures are not respectful.
Any majority that uses polling data and its own demographic dominance to give itself “ad hoc” precedence over minorities – as this bill threatens to do, relying on Gérard Bouchard’s work on interculturalism – is heading down the wrong path. Creating systems of opt-outs and different classes of citizens is unacceptable. This charter will guarantee the legal profession years of work.
The only credible justification for a charter of values lies in the “neutrality” of the state. But the state is supposed to be neutral vis à vis its citizens. Not the other way around. Rights belong to people, not to ideologies and states.
A neutral state that is truly successful is one if people of all faiths (and no faith) are committed to the fundamental values of the Canadian and Quebec charters, including equality, and respect for the rule of law. It is a society where people, regardless of what they are wearing on their heads or around their necks, discharge their duties with commitment, integrity, and professionalism.
Not only is this charter of values bad news for Quebec, it is also bad news at the international level. Culture-based claims like the ones described in the first paragraph are often used to shield human rights violations. In other countries. leaders exploit populist and ethnocentric arguments to shield discriminatory practices, precisely on the grounds that their traditions and their culture should prevail.
Culture-based claims are regularly used to crush women and girls’ rights in other countries. It would be the height of irony if Quebec, such a strong supporter of women’s equality, would adopt a policy that disconnects human rights from values, thus giving ammunition to religious extremists who use exactly the same argument to support their culture and their heritage against women’s rights and against minority rights.
And under international law, creating discriminatory measures is only possible during a state of public emergency. We are not there yet. And if we get to pick and choose what rights we decide to violate in the name of social cohesion and heritage, who are we to tell anyone else to do otherwise?