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Bill 62: English Canada needs to give hypocrisy a rest

Jean Leclair is a professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Montreal.

There is something almost touching about the sanctimonious posturing of many English Canadian politicians and journalists when they comment on Quebec's attempts at dealing with religious issues.

The very unanimity of the disgust is all the more ironic when one remembers that not so long ago, in September of 2013, an Angus Reid poll revealed that 44 per cent of Albertans liked the Quebec Charter of Values, a quarter of them strongly, and so did 40 per cent of Ontarians. Or when one remembers that the founders of The Rebel Media do not happen to reside in Saguenay, or that the late Rob Ford, Canada's Trump and a self-avowed "racist," was not the mayor of Montreal.

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Let me be clearly understood. There is no doubt in my mind that the recent "Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality" adopted by the Quebec National Assembly is unconstitutional, that it is not a reasonable limit to one's freedom of religion and, furthermore, that it would not foster the "vivre-ensemble" it is supposed to achieve. In 2013, I even publicly took a stand against the Quebec Charter of Values.

What irks me about the sanctimonious discourses I hear is the self-assuredness of those who distill it, their conflation of democratic discourse with judicially sanctified discourse and the fact that by stigmatizing all people who do not wish to "celebrate" the right of a woman to wear a veil, they leave the field of what could be legitimate and reasonable criticism to the real racists and the far right.

First of all, if those pontificators would only unglue their eyes from their Canadian navels, they might realize that Canada's approach to the regulation of religious symbols and clothing (which, by the way, does not have all the clarity they claim) is not the only legal path followed in the liberal-democratic world. France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom have all legislated in some form or another the display or the wearing of religious symbols or clothing. And when these laws have been challenged, next to all of them have been held to be reasonable limits by the European Court of Human Rights.

One can disagree with the reasoning of the Court (as I do), but the latter is not a fascist institution and the desire to regulate those issues is not synonymous with blind racism.

Second, to claim that regulating the wearing of face veils (niqabs) or burqas (veils covering the full face and body) is the same as regulating such things as baseball caps or miniskirts is an insult to anyone's intelligence. Denying the right of a woman to wear a niqab is certainly a violation of her individual right to freedom of religion. She most certainly can feel offended. However, freedom of expression allows one to believe and state that, however sincere her belief might be, the veiling of women cannot be considered a step forward in the fight for female equality generally. There is no direct connection between the wearing of baseball caps around the world and the subjugation of women. Coincidentally, however, such a correlation does exist in countries where a majority of women, whether willingly or not, veil themselves.

Asserting that niqabs and burqas are not a step forward for women generally is certainly offensive to those who wear these garments. But then, that is the price of democracy. One must be prepared to hear things that ruffle feathers, such as, for instance, that all Quebeckers are bigots.

To equate what is not racist to what courts determine to be legal sounds the death knell of democracy. To obey the law is one thing, to celebrate it is another. Historically, courts have been found to be wrong and strong democratic criticism has led judges to overrule earlier decisions. The realm of legitimate democratic debate is not and should not be confined to the four corners of the law.

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Furthermore, a democratic community is not a "safe place" where all forms of diversity must not only be tolerated, but celebrated. Some are indeed worth celebrating, but not all of them. If intelligent criticism is denied, then, as I said, only the bigots will feel empowered to speak out.

And please, give hypocrisy a rest. Among all those who, like me, would gladly defend a woman wearing a niqab, how many would rejoice if their daughter, one day, chose to wear one? There is no shame nor contradiction in recognizing both the right of women to wear a niqab and the fact that this is not something to celebrate.

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