Sunday, 17 November 2013

Charter of Values puts Values on the Chopping Block

On November 7, bill 60 was tabled in the Quebec National Assembly, dealing a harsh blow to workers’ human rights. Otherwise known by the absurdly long title of, Charter affirming the values of State Secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests, bill 60 seeks to strip employees of the Quebec public service of their rights to freedom of religion.

The bill places several undue restrictions on workers, all of which are deemed to form an integral part of their employment conditions[1]. For instance, the bill requires that personnel members of public bodies maintain religious neutrality and exercise reserve in expressing religious beliefs while they’re working[2].  To achieve its ends of “religious neutrality” and “reserve” with regard to expressing religious beliefs, the bill prohibits Quebec public service workers from wearing anything that could indicate a religious belief to anyone. Section 5 of the bill states as much:

In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.

Under the provisions of the bill, employees of the Quebec public service must have their faces uncovered when they’re working and providing services to the public[3]. Contractors on government jobs also have to comply with the same rigid religious stipulations that apply to public service workers[4]. Even people not employed by the government are typically obliged to have their faces uncovered when they receive public services[5].

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what this bill achieves – namely, a level of intolerance that hasn’t been seen in Canada in a mercifully long while. If bill 60 is passed, workers of one faith or another are liable to find themselves in breach of the law. Forced into a position of choosing between their jobs and their faith, workers will have to make decisions no one should be forced to make.

The tension this bill would sow in Quebec has already been on display. The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal has voiced strong objections, calling the bill “patently discriminatory”. And so it is. The bill would prohibit doctors and employees of the hospital from wearing the kippah (or “yarmulke”) or virtually any other symbol indicative of a religious faith while they’re working. The hospital has vowed to defy such provisions of the bill, if it passes.

Canada has been instrumental in fostering human rights, both at home and on the international stage. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, establishing human rights as international law for the first time. Canada helped to draft key sections of the Declaration and was at the forefront of this movement to recognize human rights. Article 18 of the Declaration recognizes a person’s right to freedom of thought and religion. Given that the Declaration was passed shortly following the end of WWII, the importance of the recognition of a right to practice religion without discrimination cannot be overstated. To now see one of the provinces stoop to tabling legislation that targets the freedom of workers to express their religion is completely contrary to the sentiments the UDHR and subsequent human rights legislation has been designed to uphold.

Before the bill was tabled, rumours had been circulating that Premier Marois planned to call an election for December 9th, leveraging the expected popularity of bill 60 to gain a PQ majority in the National Assembly. But it seems she was sorely disappointed. According to polls, the Liberals remain in the lead of the PQ. Perhaps as a result of her lagging poll numbers, Premier Marois has stated now that she won’t call an election.

It seems the people of Quebec don’t want legislation that discriminates against workers based on their religious beliefs. It seems the people of Quebec might prefer legislation that bolsters, rather than assaults, protections for a person’s dignity. If Premier Marois wants any chance of re-election, she just may need to acknowledge how deeply offensive, flawed and misguided bill 60 really is.

[1] S. 13.
[2] See sections 3 and 4.
[3] S. 6
[4] S. 10.
[5] S. 7.

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