Quebec's Human Rights Commission has ripped into the provincial government's plan to limit religious expression in the workplace, saying the Parti Québécois's proposed Charter of Quebec Values clearly violates a host of fundamental rights.
Despite the harsh indictment delivered by the province's rights watchdog Thursday, the PQ minority government vowed to plow ahead with the plan to create a framework for accommodation in Quebec and to impose a ban on religious symbols like veils and turbans in the workplace.
In a scathing 21-page position paper, the commission said none of the charter of values is necessary and much of it is a clear violation of personal freedoms guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Quebec's own charter of rights enacted 38 years ago and international law.
The commission says the government's proposal confuses basic concepts like the difference between values and rights. The dress code, which is the most controversial element of the proposal is based on evidence that "seems to be more intuitive than rational," the commission said.
"The government's proposals are cause for serious concern," said commission president Jacques Frémont, describing the values charter as a "complete break" with individual and religious rights long guaranteed in the province. "It's going to hit a wall in the courts."
Last month, the Quebec government introduced a plan to limit accommodation in the province, along with a dress code banning some religious garb among 600,000 workers in the public service. The proposed plan has been extremely divisive, leading to arguments on the street and dramatic splits in Quebec society, including among sovereigntists, feminists and unions – segments of the population that usually rally behind the PQ.
Several government ministers emerged to declare their intention to move ahead with the charter even as they took care to avoid criticizing the commission.
"We have to accept their opinion along with many others," said Alexandre Cloutier, the intergovernmental relations minister and constitutional lawyer.
"In the judicial universe, sometimes there is a difference of opinion."
Bernard Drainville, the lead minister on the charter proposal, said the human-rights commission has "a different reading on the situation" when it comes to putting a framework on religious accommodation. "They seem to find the status quo acceptable. I find that surprising," he said.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, whose party is most opposed to the values plan, said he has repeatedly warned the PQ that the proposal would never stand up to legal scrutiny.
"It's very risky to stir up public opinion on these questions, especially when you are putting yourself in contradiction with fundamental rights in Quebec," Mr. Couillard said. "They have a duty to unite Quebeckers on such a sensitive topic, not divide them."
The commission noted that its data "does not report a single situation where the wearing of religious symbols by a public sector worker would have threatened the principle of religious neutrality."
"It is unreasonable to presume the partiality of a public sector worker by the simple fact that he or he wears a religious symbol," the commission's paper says.
The Parti Québécois government's desire to modify the Quebec charter of rights to fit the values plan would break with "the spirit and the letter" of the Quebec charter and would require "the most radical modification of the Charter since its adoption," the commission said.
The proposal would have no chance of surviving a challenge under the Canadian charter and would require use the notwithstanding clause for its proposal to withstand.
The commission also dismissed the PQ argument that the values charter is necessary to protect and promote equality between men and women. Quebec's charter of rights has protected equality since 1975. What's really needed to improve gender inequality, the commission noted, are concrete actions improving the social and economic status of women.
The commission also dismissed the need to create a framework for religious accommodation in the workplace – a component of the values charter that has met with far less division in Quebec.
Thirty years of jurisprudence have created a clear framework for taking reasonable steps to accommodate religious minorities while balancing special requests against undue hardship.
"There is no legal void in terms of reasonable accommodation," the commission said.
With a report from The Canadian Press