There was a time when liberal values were synonymous with Liberalism, when Liberal parties were the foremost defenders of our civil rights. Well, it seems the times they've been a-changin'.
Take the tabling by Quebec's Liberal government of a bill that will prevent fully veiled women from having access to public services, a move that federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is applauding - which is especially remarkable given that Mr. Ignatieff, in an earlier life, was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.
Nobody knows what Mr. Ignatieff would have said about the niqab bill if it weren't so tremendously popular, and this in a province that his party is desperate to win back. A public opinion poll showed that 95 per cent of Quebeckers approved the idea of banning the niqab in public services. It should be noted that, for once, Quebec and the rest of Canada are on the same wave length; polls show huge majorities across the country backing the Charest government's initiative. This is just more proof, if it were needed, that minority rights should never be left to government, let alone subjected to referendum or plebiscite.
(Prime Minister Stephen Harper, through his spokesman, also said the bill "makes sense," but the Harper Conservatives have never been the greatest champions of civil liberties - as we saw in 2007 when the government introduced totally unnecessary legislation aimed at veiled women. The bill, which was later dropped, would have forced voters to show their faces for identification purposes, even though visual ID is not required by law; one can vote by mail, as many "snowbirds" do, or by presenting two documents without photos.)
There are two aspects to the niqab bill. One is that state employees won't be allowed to wear the veil that reveals only the eyes. This obviously makes sense. But did we need a law? A small number of civil servants wear a head scarf that leaves the face entirely visible, but how many fully veiled women have requested a job in Quebec's civil service? One? Two? Zero? In any case, no one showing up for a job interview wearing a niqab - or a mask, for that matter - would be hired.
The problem is, the ban also applies to the users of public services. Can a democratic society deny access to services such as health care and education to the (rare) women who wear a niqab?
It takes an extremely serious reason to bar a citizen (or an immigrant) from using public services. If the client is violent, physically threatening or verbally abusive, then, of course, it's understandable that civil servants would refuse to serve the person. The same applies to the French-language class from which a niqab-wearing women was expelled in Montreal (an incident that restarted the whole weary debate about accommodating religious minorities).
This particular woman disrupted the class for three months with unreasonable demands. It makes sense that the school decided to ask her to leave. Her behaviour was akin to that of a continuously undisciplined student - and the refusal to conform to normal class rules is always a fair reason for expulsion. But why wouldn't a quiet, rule-abiding student be allowed to sit in class if she doesn't disturb anyone and doesn't prevent the teacher from doing her work?
The Charest government's bill won't satisfy the growing number of people calling for a law banning all religious symbols from public administration, including head scarfs, kippas, Sikh turbans and crosses. The opposition Parti Québécois is at the forefront of this movement. In a rare display of dissent, the Bloc Québécois broke ranks with its provincial cousins. Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said he favours the Bouchard-Taylor commission's approach - laïcité ouverte (open secularism) - rather than the rigid system modelled on France's aggressive secularism that has become the PQ's new dogma.