New Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has stated that an early priority would be to address ongoing concerns regarding reasonable accommodation issues. He promised that his government would focus on three aspects where he believed a consensus was possible: fighting religious extremism, requiring faces to be uncovered when receiving or offering government services, and providing a framework to settle demands for religious accommodation. As he stated:
“It is important for me to deal with this early in our government. The issue has divided Quebeckers and caused suffering. … It’s time to bring this matter to a conclusion and move forward.”
We do not know the specifics of his proposed Charter until draft legislation is tabled, possibly this fall, given Couillard’s commitment to consult with other parties. However, given his past statements, notwithstanding some flip-flops, and his overall message of inclusion, some aspects are clearer than others.
On fighting religious extremism, there is no real indication of what he intends. Will the government essentially propose more research, as the Canadian government has largely done through initiatives such as the Kanishka Project (the Air India memorial fund for research on extremism) or former Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Fatima Houda-Pépin proposed research centre on fundamentalism? Or will it try a more active approach of projects and related initiatives to engage the communities in building resilience against fundamentalism, as some of federal multiculturalism projects attempted to do? Or some combination of the two?
The ban on face coverings while receiving or offering public services is not new. The former Liberal government of Jean Charest tabled a bill in 2010 and Houda-Pépin proposed similar measures. Broad consensus exists for such a ban, and not only in Quebec. Will the definition of government services be broad, covering education and healthcare? Or, will it take a more narrow approach, being applied to only core government service such as health card applications, issuing drivers licenses, or applying for government benefits? Quebec and Canadian public opinion largely favours a broad approach.
The focus on face coverings only, compared to the broad approach of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) on “religious headgear” such as the hijab, kippa and turban, is less likely to lead to major legal challenges. As the PQ admitted late in the campaign, their Charter would likely have required use of the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution (which Couillard’s promise to release the government legal opinions is expected to confirm) and mean a number of public servants would lose their jobs.
Couillard has been clear that his overall philosophy would allow public servants, both those directly in government administration as well as those delivering education, healthcare and other services, to comply with their religious dress requirements, except the niqab. But will the Liberal government proposal essentially adapt the Bouchard-Taylor approach, requiring persons in authority (judges, police, correctional services) to avoid religious symbols?
The framework to settle religious accommodation requests will likely include both principles and process aspects. While the tendency in Quebec is to come with a code of conduct, the sheer variety of situations and considerations make that difficult. A more general, principle-based approach is more practical and can be expected.
Given Couillard’s promise to undertake consultations and implement a Charter where consensus exists, where do the other parties stand?
François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is in an easier situation than the PQ. Bouchard-Taylor plus teachers, was essentially Legault’s position.
Will the PQ, however, use their defeat to reflect upon the damage their Charter did to their traditional inclusive vision of Quebec, or will it remain in denial mode and continue with what was a cynical political tactic to play on identity fears? The Liberal government proposal could provide the PQ an opportunity to jettison their divisive approach and rebuild relations with communities. But will they?
While hard to predict a final outcome from the expected efforts to build consensus around a Charte de laicïté, it is hard to see any major objections to research on fundamentalism, banning the niqab and equivalent face coverings, or having some form of framework to cover reasonable accommodation. It will likely be in the details that debate will occur. Couillard may need to accept the Bouchard-Taylor approach; Legault may be willing to drop the requirement to include teachers in any measures in turn, particularly if the niqab ban applies to education. The PQ has more existential questions at stake.
At the federal level, Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney highlighted his general support, noting that he has maintained that federal officials should not serve citizens with covered faces. Opposition leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have expressed general support, but are holding back substantive comment until they have seen the Couillard government’s actual text. It is unlikely, however, that the more limited approach will require the federal government to challenge the proposed Charter given what we now know and expect.
Will the new premier be able to develop an approach that responds to the concerns of many Quebeckers, while respecting the fundamental rights of each Quebecker, regardless of their religion? Former PQ Premier Pauline Marois, ironically, paved the way by showing the limits to identity-based politics in Quebec.
By moving early in his mandate, while the PQ is occupied in its post-election reflections, and the CAQ is trying to position itself as the main opposition party, Couillard has a unique opportunity to help Quebec to move past the divisive debate over the previous Charter.
Andrew Griffith is the author of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism. He is the former Director General for Citizenship and Multiculturalism at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). He has worked at Canadian Heritage, Service Canada, Industry Canada and Privy Council Office, in addition to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, where he had a number of domestic and international assignments.