Two new decisions by Quebec's human rights commission strike a sensible balance in the province's continuing debate on reasonable accommodation. But some people are taking this as an occasion to fan the issue's flames, which is a distraction from the pressing question of how to increase economic opportunity for immigrants.
The commission said that the provincial health-insurance authority, the Régie de l'assurance maladie du Québec, should not bend to a client who refuses to be served by a headscarf-wearing employee. On the other hand, the Régie was not required to provide alternative service to a client wearing a niqab or burka facial veil who, when presenting herself for photo or visual verification, asked for a female employee - a rare request, in any case.
These decisions are consistent and reasonable. In the first case, "a conflict of values, not a conflict of rights," was at play, as the commission wrote. In the second case, a legal requirement would have been subjected to an inconvenient hurdle.
Differentiating between values and the law is a good guide to tough choices in integration. Unfortunately, it came too late for Naema Ahmed, the student who was expelled from her government-sponsored French-language class for not removing her niqab. Reading her lips was not strictly necessary in order to teach her French. Moreover, her removal upon a direct instruction of a minister of the Crown, after being accommodated by some school officials, goes well beyond the reasonable.
The niqab and burka are rightly objectionable to many, and some also see the hijab headscarf as a sign of female subordination. But that does not justify an extension of the state's sartorial reach.
In a new open letter, some Quebec academics say the secular state needs a "legislative protection" that would prevent all government employees from wearing anything that signifies their religious affiliation during work hours.
That would go too far; it would include a ban on crucifixes and hijabs, worn harmlessly and without incident by many.
Meanwhile, immigrants still face a considerable wage gap when compared with Canadian-born workers. In 2006, only one in five immigrants to Quebec was working in the profession for which they were trained, the lowest rate in Canada. In the agitation around reasonable accommodation in Quebec, and in the lack of debate about it in the rest of Canada, it is far too easy to ignore that larger failure to accommodate.