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Why Quebec's Bill 62 is wrong: An alternative view on the niqab debate

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Last week, my friend Tom Parkin published on rabble a very well articulated essay about the current debate within the NDP leadership race over how New Democrats should respond to Quebec's Bill 62 and its proposal to bar some women in the Muslim community from giving or receiving public services.

Among the four leadership candidates, Guy Caron, and for at least a day or so, Niki Ashton, have spoken to this issue, saying that what is critical is that New Democrats respect Quebec's right to pass this law even if we don't like it. This must be the NDP response, they argue, because of our commitment as a party to the Sherbrooke Declaration and to asymmetrical federalism in Canada. 

Ashton appears to now be distancing herself from her original response to the issue, but Caron, and now Parkin, go to some lengths to argue that while the rest of Canada may not fully appreciate it, Bill 62 is about expressing Quebec's historic and progressive commitment to secularism in the public sphere.

And finally, it also looks pretty much like all those within the party who are taking this view see it as the touchstone of one's recognition of the strategic importance of Quebec support to any future hope of the NDP ever regaining its 2011 glory or some day forming a government in Canada at the federal level.

I would like to offer an alternative view. 

But before I get there, I worry that some well-intentioned readers will dismiss what I am going to argue by thinking: Chris Watson is just old school and doesn't understand the importance of Quebec to the NDP long-term strategic mission. Actually, I believe strongly that support in Quebec is a strategic necessity to any hope of the NDP ever forming a federal government. And, I have long held that view even at the expense of being politely chastised by then leader Alexa McDonough who asked me to stop wasting the party's money by investing it in Quebec. I was also, in late 2004, among those who led the opposition to a proposal made by some members of caucus and senior political staff, including Ed Broadbent and some of Jack Layton's most senior advisers, that we should cancel the planned 2006 NDP federal convention in Quebec City and move it to a location in English Canada. But I digress.

Today, the only appropriate, and indeed, critically necessary, response by the NDP to Bill 62, should be to say it is wrong, on principle, and should not be passed in any form, despite anyone's interpretation of the Sherbrooke Declaration, or the fact that it may be supported by many Quebec progressives.

Ask yourself: what is it that's really on the line? What's really at stake in this debate? Is it primarily Quebec's commitment to secularism and our party's commitment to asymmetrical federalism?

I think not.

I believe what is really at stake is Quebec and Canada's and the NDP's commitment to the equality and dignity of persons and the freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion. 

I am not a religious person myself, but I know I don't want to live in a society where, were I to become one, I might risk persecution and ostracization by the state for doing so.

To suggest that Quebec's secularism is more threatened by a tiny handful of women who choose to practice their faith, than it is by, let's say, the huge crucifix that hangs over the Speaker's chair in the National Assembly, would be laughable were it not so pathetic.  

Is it not tragically ironic, not to mention hypocritical, that in the name of secularism we're being asked to deny civil rights on the basis of religion?

Guy Caron tells us that because our party has adopted the Sherbrooke Declaration and its inherent commitment to asymmetrical federalism, we are obligated to respect Quebec's right to pass this legislation and, I think he believes that because Bill 62 is motivated by secularism, it is not objectively a racist and discriminatory bill, not as bad as it might otherwise be.

I disagree. If someone is, by law, denied public services because they practice their religion, does it make it less wrong because the law was motivated by secularism rather than hatred? Does the motivation really even matter?

The Sherbrooke Declaration and, accordingly, the NDP's understanding of asymmetrical federalism, are very clear. (And I agree with both.) Quebec has the right to pass its own unique legislation in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Caron himself has said as much, acknowledging that Quebec would not be allowed, for example, to pass legislation to restore the death penalty.  In this case, I believe that Caron and others are resting their case on a superficial and somewhat convenient interpretation that Bill 62 is a law about how to deliver and receive public services within Quebec and therefore falls under provincial jurisdiction.

But let's be frank. This law is not really about public services. It is about using state authority to prevent some members of society, a small, mostly non-white, religious minority, from practising their religion in a way that some others find strange, threatening or even offensive. Some go so far as to suggest Bill 62 does a favour to those women who, on their own, are supposedly unwilling or incapable of standing up to the men in their community who make them wear the niqab against their will. Really? Does the fact that some people cannot understand why a person would choose to wear a niqab make this the only plausible explanation?    

Many point to the "progressive" motivation of those who support Bill 62. I am prepared to accept that these voices are not driven by racism but by what they believe is a necessarily vigorous attachment to secularism. But so what? As V.I. Lenin so aptly wrote decades ago, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," and Bill 62 is a case in point. 

What matters is not the emotional or political feelings that drive this initiative. What matters is a sober-minded assessment of its actual impact on individuals and on the character of the society in which we live.

Looked at that way, it should be inescapable that what Bill 62 amounts to is the imposition of a race- and religious-based standard to apportion social entitlements. And, if that is so, surely it becomes quite appropriate to label it as objectively racist and unacceptable by Quebec or any other province, at any time, anywhere in Canada.   

Sometimes, it helps all of us find our way through a tricky political terrain if we situate the question at hand in a larger political context. If we do that with Bill 62, we will situate it in a Quebec that has, in just the last eight months, seen violent murders and car bombings of innocent persons for the crime of being Muslim. In the bigger picture, we'll situate it in a world in which Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump and others are championing xenophobia and racism and trying to set one part of society practically at war with the other.  

In that light, how can New Democrats think for a moment that what is most important in this debate is defending the right to pass anti-human rights legislation. Let's all give our heads a shake, rise to the occasion and do what's morally right and what humanity demands of us. And let's refuse to accept a false dichotomy whereby we can choose equality and human rights or asymmetrical federalism, but not both.

Chris Watson was NDP National Director from 2002 to 2004, working under leaders Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton. He is now on staff with the Canadian Union of Public Employees and does their government relations work in Ontario.

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