March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It provides an opportunity for every nation to reflect on its evolution in the long battle against bigotry, oppression and inequality. Here in Quebec, we regard our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as proof of our commitment to equality and justice, but we must also reckon with the fact that we have recently fallen short.
Quebec knows the progress that can come from a good reckoning. For centuries, the Catholic Church exerted more control than the will of Quebec's own people; it took a "Quiet Revolution" and a social movement of protest and mobilization to effect change. It was with an eye to break with tradition in favour of breaking new ground that the National Assembly enacted the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1975.
In that document it was written that:
"Every person is the possessor of the fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association."
This predates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by seven years. We did not need the federal government to step in and tell us what we already knew. Yet nearly 45 years later, the CAQ government chose to reverse course.
In 2019 they passed Law 21, which bans people whose religious expression includes a hijab, kippah, or turban, among others, from certain positions in the public service. This unjustifiably violates the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Quebec charter.
In order to protect Law 21 from Quebec charter-based challenges, the CAQ government used the derogation mechanism in the Quebec charter. It also modified the Quebec charter and the "Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality," thus weakening the protections originally offered to religious freedom and equality rights.
As we ponder the true nature of Quebec values, it is worth noting that the 1975 charter was adopted by the members of the Quebec National Assembly unanimously, while the 2019 amendments were passed by a simple majority.
We believe that Quebec should strive to remedy the mistakes of the past and become a diverse and inclusive society. We are hopeful that we will be able to fulfill our boundless potential and continue to progress while we remain a society that protects the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. This can only be achieved by expanding the protections provided by our charter, not eroding them.
This statement was cosigned by over 170 Québécois intellectuals, academics, artists and politicians.
Saskia de Boer is a documentary film and TV writer. Stefan Christoff is an artist and community activist. Ehab Lotayef is president of the Citizens' Rights Movement and NL21 co-founder.
A French version of this article was first published in La Presse.
Image: Paul VanDerWerf/Flickr
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