Andrew Coyne: Federal leaders have capitulated on Quebec's Bill 21, and to our shame we let themJune 17, 2019
We have so hollowed out our national conscience over the years that we think nothing of selling out a persecuted minority, rather than take a stand
Elections are defining moments for a nation: in deciding what it stands for, it also decides who and what it is. In the present election the issue on which we are being asked, most directly, to decide where we stand is Quebec’s Bill 21: the provincial law banning public servants “in positions of authority” from wearing religious symbols on the job.
For many observant persons, particularly Muslims, Sikhs and orthodox Jews, this amounts to a religious hiring bar: the wearing of the hijab, the turban and the kippa are key requirements of their faith, and as such core elements of their identity. To demand that they work uncovered is, in effect, to post a sign saying Muslims, Sikhs and Jews need not apply.
We should be clear on this. It’s not just a dress code, or an infringement of religious freedom, or religious discrimination, or those other abstract phrases you hear tossed about. We are talking about a law barring employment in much of the public sector — not just police and judges, but government lawyers and teachers — to certain religious minorities.
Existing workers may have been grandfathered, but only so long as they remain in their current jobs. Should they ever move, or seek a promotion, they will face the same restrictions. The signal to the province’s religious and, let’s say it, racial minorities, vulnerable as they will be feeling already after the mounting public vitriol to which they have been exposed in the name of the endless “reasonable accommodation” debate, is unmistakable: you are not wanted here. Not surprisingly, many are getting out — out of the public service, out of Quebec.
That this is actually happening, in 2019, in a province of Canada — members of religious minorities being driven from their jobs, and for no reason other than their religion — is sickening, and shameful. That shame is not reserved to Premier Francois Legault or his CAQ government, the people responsible for designing and implementing this disgraceful exercise in segregation, this manifestly cruel attempt to cleanse the province’s schools and courts of religious minorities. It is no less shaming to the rest of us, everywhere across Canada, so long as we permit it to continue.
That is, so far as we are capable of feeling it. But experience has taught us to look the other way when it comes to Quebec, to tell ourselves that it is none of our affair, that we must not raise a fuss when the province explicitly elevates the interests of its ethnic and linguistic majority over those of its minorities, or threatens the country’s life for long years at a time — the beloved “knife at the throat” strategy — to back its escalating fiscal and constitutional demands. We dare not. We cannot. For then Quebec would leave.
So shame does not come easily to us as a nation. We have so hollowed out our national conscience over the years that we think nothing now of selling out a persecuted minority, rather than take a stand in their defence. And the proof of that can be seen in the positions of our national party leaders.
It is a sign of how abjectly they have all capitulated to majority opinion in Quebec that Justin Trudeau’s craven wobbling about — “I won’t do anything about it now, but I don’t entirely rule out doing something sometime” is only a slight paraphrase — looks positively Churchillian among them.
All they have been asked to do, after all, is join in support of legal challenges of the legislation’s constitutionality already filed in Quebec’s courts by private groups — actions that, owing to the Legault government’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause, must be considered long shots at best, based on novel interpretations of those sections of the Charter not covered by the clause, or the division of powers, or the clause itself.
But even that, apparently is too much. Asked at the Maclean’s debate whether he would support such a challenge as prime minister, Andrew Scheer babbled his usual babble as to how his party would “always stand up for individual liberties” as if he were not already on the record that, in the matter of Bill 21, they would never do so. Jagmeet Singh, who would be among the first victims of the bill were he to attempt to find work in the Quebec judicial system, denounced the bill as “legislated discrimination,” without committing himself to do anything about it.
And Elizabeth May? Ah, Elizabeth May. Convinced that the bill was “an infringement on individual human rights” but concerned not to “fuel” separatism, the Green Party leader proposed a “solution” where “we leave Quebec alone, but we find jobs for anyone that Quebec has taken off of their payroll for working in a government job.” Moderator Paul Wells sought to clarify: she’d find jobs “for people who have to leave”? Yes, she replied.
But our political leaders are what we make of them. If the leader of the Green Party can declare on national television that she will stand up for Quebec’s religious minorities by giving them bus tickets, and face no political consequences for it whatever, it is because our own moral and intellectual defences against such nonsense have atrophied.
Even today it is possible to read, on the CBC’s website, an explanation of Quebec’s “new” nationalism, with its familiar appeals to fears of immigration and multiculturalism, as being based not on crude prejudice or majoritarian intolerance, but “on a holistic conception of Quebec society that prioritizes the historical experience of francophones.”
It is only in this context that Legault could issue his extraordinary demand that all of the federal party leaders pledge “never” to intervene in any court case regarding Bill 21. There’s no point to this; he knows they won’t dare. He just wants to watch them grovel. But it’s not just their shame he’s rubbing their faces in. It’s ours.