National Column: Tragedy will only pause divisive debate

by Chantal Hebert

For more than a decade, Quebec has been the scene of a divisive and, so far, sterile debate as to what constitutes the reasonable accommodation of religious minorities by a secular state.

Over that period, Quebecers have been subjected to a barrage of fear-mongering rhetoric purporting that the secular nature of their public institutions is under attack from an army of religious zealots – mostly, but not exclusively, of the Muslim faith. For much of the time, the sound of dog-whistle politics has dominated the conversation with depictions of the Muslim community often amounting to little more than caricature.

Over his leadership campaign last year, Jean-FranÁois LisÈe of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) hammered the notion that public safety required governments to consider banning the burka to prevent terrorists from wearing the full-body covering to hide lethal weapons.

Last summer, Quebec’s third party, the Coalition Avenir QuÈbec (CAQ), flirted with the notion of a ban on body-covering bathing suits such as the burkini. Its platform pointedly calls for vetting the values of immigrants to ensure they are aligned with the province’s mainstream.

In 2015, the Bloc Quebecois ran ads against the NDP that featured an oil drop morphing into a niqab-wearing female face. The ad was taken down from the party’s website only after the attack on the mosque last Sunday.

In the last federal election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives exported the debate to the rest of Canada under the guise of a proposed ban on the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies and the promise of a snitch line to report so-called barbaric cultural practices.

The issue haunts the party still as it looks for a new leader. For the first time in the leadership campaign of a mainstream federal party, there is a debate as to whether immigrants pose a threat to Canadian values. The
notion that they do may have enough traction within party ranks to have propelled its leading champion, Kellie Leitch, to the top tier of a crowded leadership field.

That is at least until this week.

In response to the Quebec City tragedy but also to U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has warned that anti-immigration sentiment had never been a Conservative value.

Former federal immigration minister Jason Kenney forcefully denounced a travel ban that targets Muslims. Those are voices that resonate loudly within the Canadian right.

In Quebec, this has been a week of public atonement for the province’s political class. LisÈe has expressed regrets about some of his outlandish contributions to the conversation, notably on the burka.

Premier Philippe Couillard is convinced that the tone going forward will be less corrosive.

There is no doubt that the many public assurances of goodwill given to a grieving Muslim community this week were heartfelt.

But turning down the volume is not the same as changing channels.

It will take more than a tragedy to recast the accommodation debate along lines more respectful of minority rights.

Consider, on this score, Quebec’s Bill 62. It is the latest legislative proposal designed to bring closure to the religious accommodation debate. It will do anything but that.

The bill would require anyone offering or receiving public services in the province to uncover his or her face,
a disposition that could hardly apply to anyone except to a minority of Muslim women.

Quebec’s opposition parties do not feel that goes far enough. The PQ would impose a secular dress code on members of the police force, judges, prison guards and Crown attorneys. The CAQ would also include teachers and child-care workers. If the Liberal bill passes as is, the opposition parties will campaign on expanding its dispositions in next year’s provincial election.

The national assembly was expected to shortly resume debate on Bill 62. The attack on the Quebec mosque will result in a pause. But sooner rather than later the parties will pick up where they left off before this week’s events.

After a decade, it may be overdue to seek the input of people less inclined to play football with the rights of religious minorities, or at least to bring a referee onto the field.

If premier Couillard decided to refer his bill and the opposition’s proposals to the courts to find out how well, if at all, they sit with the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, he would render this debate a much needed service

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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