Open and inclusive society?

Open and inclusive society?

Main pic: Le ministre québécois responsable des Institutions démocratiques et de la Participation citoyenne, Bernard Drainville, lors d’une rencontre avec des citoyens de Québec, le 15 mai 2013. Photo credit: Afrappier

This opinion piece by Colin Standish forms part of a series of articles on the proposed
Québec Charter of Values

“How can we pretend that Quebec is a democratic, open and inclusive society given the content of this retrogressive and reprehensible bill?,” states the Townshippers’ Association’s brief to the National Assembly Committee on Institutions studying Bill 60, the PQ government’s proposed identity law on state secularism and reasonable accommodations.

Onlookers and media around the world have eagerly awaited the staunch opposition of the Townshipper’s Association at the Committee hearings, the first English-language group to present their views on Bill 60 Thursday in Quebec City.

The Red Room, which once housed Quebec’s provincial Senate until 1968, in Quebec’s legislative buildings set the stage for a showdown between the Townshippers’ Association and the PQ Minister for Institutions, Bernard Drainville.

The Townshippers’ Association chose four representatives to present their opinions. Past President Heather Bowman, executive member Melanie Cutting, President Gerald Cutting and Executive Director Rachel Hunting spoke on behalf of the Association. Members of the National Assembly comprised some of the most prominent provincial politicians in Quebec, with Language Critic Marc Tanguay, Kathleen Weil and Townships M.N.A. for Orford Pierre Reid for the Liberals, Nathalie Roy for the CAQ and Francoise David co-Leader of the Quebec Solidaire present.

Rachel Hunting led the presentation of the four main concerns of Townshippers’ Association, the non-profit, non-partisan community organization that represents the members of the English-speaking community of the historical Eastern Townships. It should be noted that the Townshippers’ spoke in French throughout the presentation. Hunting called on the government to withdraw Bill 60 in its’ entirety and proceeded with her first argument against the controversial law: the proposed changes to Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. She noted articles 40 and 41 were intended to reinforce the primacy of the French language, the “Quebec nation,” gender equality and state secularism above other individual rights in Quebec. She raised the important question of whether, “Anglophones will have their rights diminished by such a change?” and whether Anglophones, aboriginals and other minorities were included in the concept of a “Quebec nation.” Hunting also questioned the ‘raison d’etre’ of the law, and questioned whether Bill 60 legitimizes attacks on minorities given the increase in violence directed towards religious and ethnic minorities in Quebec. She proceeded to denounce the Bill for being directed towards, “satisfying the ideological interests of the day” at the expense of protections for minorities.

Gerald Cutting rounded off the presentation by questioning the government’s definition of secularism in the Bill, denouncing it as an assault on individual liberties. Cutting deplored that the Bill pitted “nous” (us) against “eux” (them) in Quebec society. Cutting suggested a neutral state would not determine hiring, working conditions or dismissal of employees based on their religious identity. The result of this form of state secularism would be, he concluded, “state sanctioned discrimination.”

In his closing remarks, Cutting questioned the costs and ability to implement Bill 60’s new requirements. He noted that litigation costs alone would be of great expense and that these challenges could leave a negative and indelible mark on Quebec. He concluded his remarks by denouncing Bill 60 as, “a solution in search of a problem.” And, that the current Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in Quebec works well, as is, in protecting individual rights.

The final 50 minutes of the discussion portion of the presentation involved numerous highlights, where Minister Bernard Drainville challenged Townshippers’ on their brief and views on language and the “Quebec nation.” His tone was combative and critical as he attempted to refute the suggestion that the proposed changes to the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms had been, “last minute.” He reminded Townshippers’ that the xenophobic incidents associated with the secularism debate came from all sides. Gerald Cutting interjected forcefully throughout their exchange and they both concluded that respectful debates were a necessity. Drainville then proceeded to quote the Townshippers’ brief back to them, criticizing their language in denouncing Bill 60 as, “ not so much about values, but rather a document designed to set in motion the protocols to engineer a society of conformity and blatant discrimination based upon observable differences such as language, religious affiliation, and ethnic background.” Cutting stood his ground.

Drainville then proceeded a tense and terse debate regarding the primacy of French in Quebec and the true definition of a Quebecer. Given Townshippers’ objection to the inclusion of the primacy of French in the Charter of Human Rights’ preamble, Drainville challenged, “Do you have a problem with the principle of the primacy of French in Quebec?” Cutting emphasized his respect for the French language in Quebec. The debate then became a discussion of who is and who is not a Quebecer, prompting Minister Drainville to state that he adhered to René Lévesque’s definition which is that, “a resident of Quebec is a Quebecer.” Cutting jumped upon the occasion to rhetorically corner Drainville, stating that he was absolutely for French language as a Quebec value (among others) and that he, “appreciated [the Minister] mentioned in a public debate that a resident of Quebec is a Quebecer.” This was confirmed by Drainville, with Cutting concluding, “when we leave here today we will have a definition of who is part of the “Quebec nation.”

Liberal Pierre Reid lauded Townshippers’ as the “largest Anglophone Association off the island of Montreal” and emphasized his concern for the English-speaking population of the Eastern Townships. He noted that the changes to Quebec’s Human Rights Charter could change all past and future laws in Quebec. Gerald Cutting discussed issues of retention and employment of Anglophones in the Eastern Townships, and how critical experience, eduction and language skills were to younger generations.

NDG M.N.A. Kathleen Weil referred ironically to Bill 60 as the “so-called” Values Charter.

Nathalie Roy, prominent spokesperson for the CAQ, complimented the beauty of the Eastern Townships and asked, “why secularism should not be written into a law?” Cutting weighed in with his arguments about secularism being about the separation of church and state, and emphasized his earlier opposition for the Bill.

Quebec Solidaire co-Leader Françoise David said she believes there is consensus in Quebec about reasonable accommodation and secularism and Bill 60 should not be entirely repealed.

The discussion then came to a close after 60 minutes, with all parties shaking hands in the storied Red Room.

The Association’s views were summed up in their brief as, “it is our considered opinion that Bill 60 is not a measure that will enhance the values and personal freedoms already ensured by both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. If adopted “as is,” it will only serve to deepen divisions among Quebec residents, and increase the isolation of minorities.”

The Townshippers’ Association made a strong statement on Bill 60 that was heard not only around the Townships, but throughout Quebec, Canada and the entire world on Thursday, January 16th, 2013.

Categories: Opinion, Politics

About Author

Colin Standish

Colin Standish has a law degree from Université Laval in Quebec City and a history and politics degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Colin was born and raised in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and is currently a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada nomination in Compton-Stanstead. He has learnt French in order to be able to study his chosen degree subject in the language.

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