Response: Lisée Misinterprets Jeffersonian Ideals

Response: Lisée Misinterprets Jeffersonian Ideals

Main pic: Jean-François Lisée en février 2012. Photo credit: Louperivois

by Colin Standish

Jean-François Lisée, minister in Quebec’s separatist Parti Quebécois government, has a habit of inappropriately misinterpreting the republican ideals of American founding father Thomas Jefferson in The New York Times. Mr. Lisée, unfortunately, peddles a number of myths and misconceptions that are not based in fact or in law throughout the article.

Firstly, the Jeffersonian principle of the ‘separation of church and state’ was intended to prevent the establishment of a state religion or the prohibition of religious expression. Mr. Lisée confuses the Jeffersonian ideal for his own party’s plan to strip religious minorities of their identity by preventing them from obtaining basic social services or working for the government. Government intervention in Quebec is wide-ranging (certainly compared to the United States) and includes a monopoly on all hospitals, universities and social services. Quebec wants to impose secularism on its workers and clients, which is a form of state-sanctioned religious coercion. Quebecers would be cruelly forced to choose between employment, essential government services and their most deeply held personal beliefs. The Charter of Values, being defended by Lisée, would have a prejudicial effect on non-francophones, newcomers and minorities who are currently vastly underrepresented in Quebec’s civil service, and suffer from lower employment rates and income than other Quebecers. The proposed Charter will only compound these issues and penalize populations that require assistance and understanding.

The discriminatory, prejudicial and petty measures in the Charter of Values contradict Mr. Lisée’s assertion that, “Quebec’s approach to the separation of church and state is… progressive and modern.”

Secondly, the PQ has consistently focused on the most superficial representations of religion (though sacred to believers): clothing. PQ leaders have not been able to produce any compelling evidence that there is a rational connection between overtly religious symbols and compromised service. If a government was serious about a more secular state wouldn’t they first consider abolishing the tax-free status for religious institutions and personnel? Or, re-naming the countless Quebec municipalities and streets that which are named after saints and parishes? Or, ending subsidies to private religious schools in Quebec for an estimated 100 million dollars a year?

Mr. Lisée claims that the PQ has decided to remove the crucifix from its own legislature. This is not accurate. Under significant public pressure to remove this item from above the Speaker’s chair, symbolizing the indivisibility of state power and Catholicism, the PQ resisted and has only consented to a free vote in the legislature on the future of the crucifix.

Thirdly, Mr. Lisée also claims that Canada’s Constitution, adopted in 1982, has, “de facto authority over the province.” ‘De facto’ implies an authority rules without legal foundation or basis. This is a shocking claim from a Minister of the Crown. The Canadian Constitution is, of course, “de jure” meaning that state authority operates within the rule of law and was established upon solid legal foundations. This was ruled upon twice by the Supreme Court of Canada during constitutional negotiations.

Mr. Lisée also claims, “Quebec… has refused to ratify this [constitution]” That Quebec’s so-called “National” Assembly has not assented to the 1982 Constitution is accurate, but is irrelevant in law. Quebec’s consent was not necessary to repatriate Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom, and does not limit its application to Quebec. While Quebec did not consent to the constitution at the provincial level of government, federally elected representatives did consent to the new Constitution, with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice and 74 of 75 representatives elected from Quebec ridings being in the majority party.

Contradicting his initial assertions on the Constitution, Mr. Lisée later concedes its application to Quebec and that the Charter of Values might be unconstitutional, stating, “the federal Constitution that Quebec has never approved might be invoked to strike [the Charter] down.”

Mr. Lisée’s comments regarding the legal legitimacy of the Canadian Constitution to an international audience in his capacities as Minister of International Affairs, are irresponsible and inappropriate at best, and subversive at worst. Though, of course, the ideology of his separatist political party is predicated on subversion of Canadian political and legal authority.

Fourthly, Mr. Lisée also mistakenly makes his primary arguments for the Charter of Values about multiculturalism, comparing European and pan-Canadian debates to the Quebec context. The debate is not about multiculturalism, but religious freedom.

His assertions are largely an “apples and oranges” comparison, because debates regarding minorities and immigration in Europe take place in a vastly different legal, historical, and social contexts. While there are concerns about mass immigration and multiculturalism in Quebec and Canada (Canada’s multiculturalist experiment according to Mr. Lisée), they are generally focused on ensuring the effective social and economic inclusion of newcomers into our societies, not inventing new ways to coerce them to leave their fundamental beliefs at the door.

Fifthly, Mr. Lisée is correct to assert that women in Quebec are reticent about religion reappearing in the public sector. However, the Charter of Values has caused an unprecedented rift in Quebec’s feminist movement. In Orwellian double-speak, the PQ government has attempted to shield their proposals from criticism by conflating secularism with the equality of men and women, when in fact, their measures would target observant Muslim women.

Sixthly, I am also surprised to see Mr. Lisée applaud recent Supreme Court decisions on multiculturalism (which ones exactly?), where his comments on the Constitution and religious freedom reject numerous Supreme Court decisions. Thankfully, the Supreme Court of Canada has embraced a liberal framework for religious accommodations, based on sincerity of personal belief and minimal impairment of this right, if necessary. These precedents would mostly likely invalidate the Charter of Values.

I am in thoroughly in agreement with Mr. Lisée on his final point, in hoping all Quebecers will make their last stand in this debate. I hope they will stand up against the Charter of Values and for equal rights, basic human rights, and freedom of religion for all Quebecers as defined under Quebec, Canadian, and international law.

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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