Opinion: Unjust Bill 21 dispenses with an array of rights. SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE Updated: April 15, 2019
Use of notwithstanding clause is remarkably broad, covering several Charter rights, but can’t be used to override international obligations
Bill 21 proposes to reinforce state secularism, which is a good thing, but it will do so by diminishing religious freedoms through the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter and by sidelining the judiciary. And the bill does more, far more. It uses “values” as a bulwark against virtually the entire Canadian Charter, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and international human rights obligations.
The Supreme Court of Canada has said, and keeps saying, that state neutrality protects individuals’ religious freedoms, including non-beliefs, within reasonable limits.
Bill 21 has it backward. It will deploy individuals at the front lines in the battle to impose state neutrality, violating an unwritten principle of the rule of law that protects minorities in Canada.
Premier François Legault argues that Bill 21 is “reasonable” and that several countries have tougher laws. He may be referring to France. In 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee handed down two decisions criticizing French laws banning niqabs as “the imposition of a dress code on women.” It also demolished France’s argument about upholding women’s equality because France relied “solely on prejudices held by some people about the way of life of certain groups.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified by Canada in 1976 and Quebec is bound by its terms. It guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It prohibits removing those rights under any circumstance if doing so discriminates among people by religion. Incidentally, Legault cannot use the notwithstanding clause on international law.
He can, however, use the notwithstanding clause to erase the Canadian Charter’s equality rights, as well as religious freedoms. But Bill 21 goes further. Section 30 states that it operates notwithstanding most of the other major rights and freedoms in the Charter. The bill only lists them by number instead of spelling them out, which considerably reduces the shock value. Here are a few of the rights: freedom of expression, conscience, association, peaceful assembly and freedom of the press.