Goodbye to Québec?

Human rights as a secular faith.

It was supposed to be all about language. After the Parti Québécois formed its first provincial government in late 1976, it enacted Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, which abolished Québec’s previous bilingual status and guaranteed the priority of the majority tongue. But with two failed referenda behind it, the PQ eventually lost its momentum, and the threat of separation receded. Or so we thought.

However, Québec’s Bill 21 could bring Canadian unity back to the forefront and pose more of a danger to Confederation than any dustup over language. This controversial legislation proposes to prohibit a wide variety of public employees, including school teachers, crown prosecutors and police officers, from wearing religious symbols. Most controversial of all, the bill invokes section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the so-called Notwithstanding Clause, to bypass the constitutional guarantees of “freedom of conscience and religion.” Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec have the support of the PQ, but not of the two other opposition parties.

The CAQ is using its comfortable majority in the National Assembly to attempt to push this bill through. As I write, it is not clear whether it will pass before the summer recess begins. Readers will have the advantage over me by the time this appears in print. Yet whether the government gets its way or not, Bill 21 or anything similar represents a direct challenge to what might be called Canada’s established religion, namely, a belief in the redemptive power of Human Rights, spelled with initial upper-case letters.


Of course, all governments, in so far as they are called to do public justice, must undertake to defend the rights of citizens. But in Canada we have put Human Rights on so high a pedestal as to invest them with unrealistic hopes. We expect them to resolve our social and political problems, and Winnipeg even boasts a Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a grand temple devoted to this secular faith. Furthermore, as former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has written, human rights are nonsensical outside of an individualist framework. From his perspective, we apparently hold our rights in opposition to the communities of which we are part.

Nevertheless, a modest emphasis on rights is a very good thing, as long as we keep four things in mind. First, contrary to Ignatieff’s assertion, we must recognize our communities to have rights as well. Second, we need to admit that initial claims to previously unrecognized rights are precisely that – mere claims requiring thoughtful consideration and adjudication. Third, as rights claims often conflict with each other, we need to recognize that they can as often cause controversy as resolve it. Finally, all rights are limited by multiple considerations, including the legitimate diversity of communal standards in a pluriform society.


If the CAQ is taking Québec down a different path, in which individual and corporate religious freedom becomes subordinate to the homogenizing force of a state-sponsored ideology, the province may find itself operating outside the constitutional principles valid for the rest of the country. When and if this occurs, it is unclear that the Canada we have known for a century and a half can survive.

Almost a decade before Confederation, President Abraham Lincoln observed that a nation cannot endure half slave and half free. The Americans fought a civil war over this. Obviously, Canada is not flirting with civil war. It is highly unlikely at this late stage that Canadians would fight to keep Québec inside the country. But the hallowed principle of equality under the law means that citizens must receive just treatment wherever they live or travel. If one province abandons this principle for a contrasting legal regime, this could put more pressure on Canada’s continued unity than any issues related to language. Let us hope and pray that it does not come to this. 


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