Quebec Charter of Values: A Legal Pipe Dream

Quebec Charter of Values: A Legal Pipe Dream

LIQ_Mag_Mar2014_Cover_FinalThis article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.
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By Maryse Carrier, Immigration Lawyer (member of the Quebec Bar since 1996)

Since it was tabled by the Marois government in the National assembly in November 2013, Bill 60, known as the Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests (“charter of values”) has sparked more than its fair share of discussion and controversy.

But what is the purpose of this bill? According to the text itself, its purpose is to affirm the value of State secularism and religious neutrality as well as the principle of equality between the sexes and to provide a framework for accommodation requests under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Catholic_Pendant_1At first glance, these objectives appear to have merit. However, the bill is also based on broadly-held misperceptions that will never stand up to a legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all but ensuring that it will never be executed.

The affirmation of State secularism simply states the obvious, confirming the status quo that has prevailed since the end of the Duplessis era. The separation between State and religion was completed a few years ago, with the public education reform removing any and all references to religion from schools and school boards.  Since the State is already without religion, what, then, is the true purpose of this “charter of values”? Is it equality between men and women?
The “charter of values” would only apply to staff within the Quebec government and its public bodies and institutions. Staff within the federal government or federal public bodies and private-sector staff would be exempt from its application, and Quebec government staff would not be covered while acting outside the exercise of their duties.

According to the wording of the bill, the wearing of conspicuous headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments indicating religious affiliation would be illegal. It therefore refers to overt symbols showing one’s religion.
The charter also includes specific rules directed at subsidized daycare and childcare workers, for the most part women. Overall, the charter would apply mainly to women of Muslim faith employed by the government, since the number of male employees of Jewish or Sikh origin in these positions is low. Are we to conclude that, for the Marois government, equality between men and women can be achieved by restricting access to government positions for a specific group of women?

Kippah_2Supporters of the charter argue that equality between the sexes is based primarily on the belief that Muslim women cover parts of their bodies because they are forced to do so, and that this demonstrates submissiveness. For most Muslim women, however, the decision to cover parts of their body is made freely and stems from a personal choice. In some instances, it is a sign of self-respect, but it can also affirm identity or cultural and ethnic origins. Only by a stretch of the imagination can one truly believe that a woman who has established her place in the workforce and obtained a position in the government is oppressed and needs the protection of the State to ensure her equality. For the vast majority of Muslim, Jewish or Sikh men and women, wearing such symbols is intrinsically linked to their personal identity.

On a strictly legal basis, if the bill finally becomes law, it could have a very short lifespan. The rules created by the “charter of values” clearly infringe upon the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which applies to all Canadians, whether or not they work for the Quebec government. A law which targets a specific segment of the population based on faith, cultural or ethnic lineage is discriminatory and will not pass the legal test imposed by the Canadian Charter.

Furthermore, as an employer, the Quebec government is bound and subject to its collective agreements, which will allow employees affected by this charter to file grievances with their unions.

Additional recourses will be available under the Civil Code of Québec, which stipulates that every person is the holder of personality rights, such as the right to life, the right to the inviolability and integrity of his person, and the right to the respect of his name, reputation and privacy.

LiQ_Mag_Abonnez-vousAs for subsidized daycare and childcare workers, distinct recourses will be available to them against their employers, since they are not government employees. This could burden the employers with delicate legal conundrums.

The unofficial name given to the bill – the “charter of Quebec values” – could not be further from reality. Surely, excluding and restricting the fundamental rights of a segment of the population is not among the cherished values held by Quebecers. What’s more, the government’s own Declaration on the common values of Quebec society, which must be acknowledged by all immigrants to Quebec, states that: Quebec is a pluralist society that welcomes immigrant from the four corners of the earth with their know-how, skills, language, culture and religion and that all Quebecers can freely choose their lifestyle, opinions and religion. That Quebec represents itself as a pluralistic society to the world but fails to apply the principle equally to all Quebecers is a blatant contradiction.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 restricted French Canadians from working in the State’s administration unless they renounced their religion and pledged allegiance.  Today, 250 years later, the Quebec government is attempting to impose the same restrictions on a minority of its population.

One could conclude that this bill’s true purpose is a political one. Is the Marois government attempting to gain popularity and achieve its sovereignist goal by rolling the dice in the belief that misunderstanding and racial prejudice will trump objectivity and open-mindedness? Perhaps the odd and out-of-context affirmation of the “primacy of the French language” contained within this bill points to the government’s true agenda.

Regardless of what the future holds, discussions surrounding the bill should be undertaken seriously and should be based on a careful review of the facts rather than mere perceptions.

This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.
The article and it’s contents, including photographs, are copyright © Life in Québec Magazine and LifeinQuebec.com and may not be reproduced without prior written consent
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About Author

Maryse Carrier

Maryse Carrier, an immigration lawyer, has been member of the Quebec Bar Association since 1996. She became a founding associate of Côté Carrier Avocats in 1998. In addition to working in immigration and citizenship law, she also covers commercial and civil litigation.

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