The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Quebec’s religious headgear ban is at odds with Canadian liberal norms. Why are politicians afraid to say so?

Protesters rally against Quebec's Bill 21, which prohibits some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work, on Dec. 14. (Justin Tang/AP)
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Erin O’Toole, leader of Canada’s Conservative Party — whose embattlement owes in large part to a persistent inability to demonstrate right-wing bona fides — has finally found an issue where he’s prepared to be a dogmatic reactionary: Quebec’s headscarf ban for public-sector workers.

Last month, after the ban was evoked to remove a Muslim schoolteacher from her classroom duties, O’Toole reportedly let it be known to his parliamentary caucus that no public dissent on the issue would be tolerated. During the last federal election, the Conservative boss prided himself on handling the matter with the greatest of finesse: Sure, he explained, he had reservations in theory about banning religious headgear, but he also respected Quebec’s right to pass its own laws and would never pick a fight over an issue it holds so dear. Though his public rhetoric is often opaque, this is still basically his position today.

O’Toole’s alleged decree has been of a piece with other high-level responses in Canada to the schoolteacher’s firing, a move that’s made the Quebec headgear ban, which is known as Bill 21 and has been theoretically controversial for months, suddenly feel more real. As has been the case throughout the law’s life, recent reactions have been harsh and judgmental — not to the Quebec government, of course, but to other Canadians who feel they have a right to weigh in.

Former senator André Pratte condescendingly told readers of the National Post that English Canadians are just falling “into the trap set by the province’s separatists” when they make a fuss over Quebeckers getting fired for practicing their religion and that people without skin in the game should just “shut up.” This is, we assume, the O’Toole position too, given the Tory leader nursed fantasies in the last election that his party was on the brink of winning Quebec’s nationalist vote — and presumably one doesn’t get there by insulting one of the movement’s marquee initiatives.

The idea that Francophone nationalists are playing 10-dimensional chess was similarly brought up by the Globe and Mail editorial board, who in a recent offering portrayed Quebec’s Premier François Legault — the architect of Bill 21 — as Canada’s most cunning political mind.

Demonstrating that one doesn’t argue Canadian politics so much as cite legends, the board bemoaned “an English-language election debate moderator asking a question on Bill 21 that was so ignorantly conceived and badly phrased” it proved “a gift to Mr. Legault.”

(For the forgetful, this supposedly horrifying episode consisted of Shachi Kurl asking federal separatist leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, “Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside of the province please help them to understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”) The Globe had earlier demanded some of the law’s critics “take a back seat and put a sock in it.”

This sort of rhetoric is based on the premise that the appeasement of Quebec is the highest purpose of Canadian politics and that the province’s aggressive nationalism must never be permitted to flare into separatism. To the extent Quebec’s comfort conflicts with other elements of the Canadian regime, it’s accordingly the former that must take precedent.

This theory runs counter to the hierarchy of priorities outlined in the Canadian constitution. The purity of Francophone Quebec culture is not a constitutionally guaranteed right, which is why Legault is in the process of getting the document changed to stick in words to that effect. Free exercise of religion is, however, which is why Legault had to exploit the constitution’s contentious and rarely used “notwithstanding clause” to pass Bill 21 as an explicitly unconstitutional law.

That legislation of this sort can pass in Canada exposes deep structural flaws in Canadian democracy. It’s always shocking when Canadians are reminded that many of their supposedly fundamental rights can be suspended by simple legislation, and it’s not irrational for those who hear about a government doing so to react with horror and outrage.

The Quebec government’s defense is similarly little more than chauvinistic tautology: “Our culture believes this thing is bad.” This is a rationalization, not an argument. Defending a religious headgear ban on the grounds French Quebeckers find headscarves and turbans obnoxious is not the sort of threadbare argument anyone should be implying meets what should be an extraordinarily high standard for rights-defying legislation.

As I’ve discussed before, members of the Quebec political class really do seem to be descending into a spoiled, sheltered state where they don’t want to argue, they don’t want to justify, and they don’t want to defend; they just want to pass laws wildly at odds with Canadian liberal norms then get flamboyantly offended when called out. Playing along is optional, however, and it’s depressing to observe how many elite Canadians who clearly know better have decided to pretend the choice between hurt feelings and soft authoritarianism is a difficult one.