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Globe editorial: It’s time for Quebec to kill Bill 62, and stop targeting religious minorities

The murder of six Muslim men praying in a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29 has provoked a watershed moment in the thinking of Quebec politicians, intellectuals and the public at large. Where Muslims were once an easy target for nationalist populists and radio shock jocks, now it is not quite so easy to stigmatize them for the sake of votes and ratings.

That's a start. But there is still a stain on the province – one last official vestige of the fearmongering that flowed from Quebec's post-9/11 debate over the accommodation of immigrants and religious minorities. That is Bill 62. It needs to die, and now is the moment to kill it.

The mosque attack prompted an unprecedented show of grief and solidarity among Quebeckers of all beliefs. Premier Philippe Couillard spoke emotionally of the "demons" in Quebec society. Nationalist politicians, including Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée, acknowledged the need to tone down their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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It was suddenly clear to so many that the overheated rhetoric about Muslim immigrants – and not just in Quebec – was partly responsible for creating a climate in which a deranged loner would feel that someone else's religious choices were not just his business, but somehow a threat to him. The additional spectacle of the overt anti-Muslim bias of the new President of the United States added to the sense that, in Quebec and the rest of Canada, self-reflection was desperately and immediately required.

And then this week came a remarkable mea culpa from Charles Taylor. The McGill philosopher, in the wake of the Quebec City killings, retracted his support for one of the most contentious recommendations in the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodation.

That report came out of a series of public hearings in Quebec in 2007 on the public's attitudes about accommodating the orthodox religious practices of minorities – Muslims, Jews and others – in a predominantly white society that embraced secularism. It came to the conclusion that, in order to demonstrate its commitment to the separation of religion and state, the Quebec government should ban figures of authority – judges, Crown prosecutors, prison guards and police officers – from wearing religious clothing or symbols.

That was then. Mr. Taylor now rejects that idea outright. His reasoning is telling: "The proposal to restrict the rights of certain classes of citizens had a side effect of stigmatization. This effect has, among other things, been reflected in the increase in incidents of aggression, especially toward Muslim women wearing the veil – attacks ranging from hate speech to assault in certain cases. These gestures are the result of a minority of citizens who were already hostile to immigrants in general or to Muslims but who did not dare to display it beforehand. The debate had the effect of mitigating or eliminating their inhibitions, as well as thickening the clouds of suspicion and fear that surrounded newcomers in a section of public opinion."

"We saw similar effects in the campaign for Brexit in the United Kingdom, and even more so in [Donald] Trump's campaign for the U.S. presidency," he also wrote.

And then he concluded that what he once called for is likely an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of religion. "This legislation," he wrote, "would probably be invalidated by the courts, leaving behind bitterness and division."

Mr. Taylor's change of mind emboldened Mr. Couillard. On Tuesday, the Premier rejected all calls to limit religious headgear for police and other figures of authority. "We are opposed to clothing discrimination," he said, point blank.

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But Mr. Couillard is still dragging behind him the ball and chain of Bill 62, a bill that would ban face coverings for provincial public-sector employees and citizens seeking their services. His government introduced the bill to assuage the opposition PQ, which ran – and badly lost – the 2014 general election on its proposed Quebec Charter of Values. Its centrepiece was a promise to ban the wearing of all religious clothing or symbols by government employees, from cops to teachers to driver's licence renewal clerks.

Bill 62 is a cheap compromise. It doesn't go far enough for the PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the nationalist opposition parties. They want to see the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations put in place. As a political firewall built to protect Quebec Liberals from criticisms that they are too accommodating of religious minorities, Bill 62 is useless.

But it also serves no other purpose. All the noise about the need to protect Quebec's secular society from the threat of Muslim veils and Jewish kippahs is just that – noise. There has never been any danger of the province's secular character being subverted by religious zealots; it was always just political pandering to the worst instincts of some voters. It was also, as Mr. Taylor now acknowledges, a precursor not to social peace, but to the inflaming of social tensions and the emboldening of people who think that anyone who doesn't look like them should be seen as a threat.

Mr. Couillard has shown the right instincts in the wake of the mosque attack. The day after the murders, he spoke of how Muslim citizens should feel at home, because Quebec is their home, no less than any and all other citizens. And he displayed courage on Tuesday when he rejected any further limits on religious headgear. Now he should finish the job, and let Bill 62 die on the order paper.

If the PQ and the CAQ want to campaign on a platform that has been thoroughly exposed as dangerous, divisive and discriminatory, well, let them. Mr. Couillard and his party should put it behind them once and for all, and keep moving forward.

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