Amira Elghawaby is a human rights advocate and writer based in Ottawa
It was a moment of utmost irony.
Just as people began to react to premier-designate François Legault’s musings that he’d essentially run roughshod over Charter rights by invoking the notwithstanding clause, the Quebec Court of Appeal weighed in on a related issue.
If only Mr. Legault and his supporters would heed the Court’s conclusions.
The very attitudes that continue to inform the political class in Quebec – that somehow a headscarf or a kippa, or a turban are a blight on the landscape of its public institutions – were unequivocally dismissed by the decision in the case of Rania El-Alloul.
Ms. El-Alloul’s experience in a Quebec courtroom back in 2015 justifiably garnered headlines. During a court appearance, the presiding judge made untenable comments about her headscarf. “In my opinion, you are not suitably dressed,” Quebec Court Justice Eliana Marengo told Ms. El-Alloul. “Decorum is important. Hats and sunglasses, for example, are not allowed. And I don’t see why scarves on the head would be either.”
Ms. El-Alloul refused to remove it and eventually challenged the judge’s treatment, an action that culminated in Wednesday’s decision.
The Court of Appeal made it clear that it was indeed wrong for Justice Marengo to discriminate against Ms. El-Alloul and prevent her from accessing the courts; that anyone with a sincerely held religious belief was within their rights to freely express their faith.
“Freedom of conscience and religion - which entails both the right to hold religious beliefs and the right to act upon these beliefs - does not disappear or change when the concerned individual is dealing with courts,” reads the ruling. Echoing a 2015 Supreme Court decision tackling similar tensions, the judgement goes on to point out that “freedom of religious expression does not stop at the door of a courtroom.” Or, presumably, at the door of any institution.
Yet, here we are again. Religious minority communities in Quebec are bracing for the harmful discourse around whether or not they can fully participate in society as equal citizens. Mr. Legault says he will invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter so that his government can ban civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. Never mind that preventing people from contributing positively as teachers, judges, police officers, or in other public capacities, is completely antithetical to the whole notion of integration. Such a notion encourages everyone, whether newly arrived immigrants, or long-time residents, to fully embrace the society they live in. What better sign of “integration” than seeking to serve the public good?
A recent academic study titled Belonging: Feelings Of Attachment And Acceptance Among Immigrants In Canada demonstrates that when first and second generation immigrants feel accepted by society, they are that much more likely to become civically engaged. Instead of encouraging that, why give more weight to closed-minded people who seem to want to bully others into invisibility?
"Clearly, a person in a position of authority can’t serve God and the state at the same time,” opined Nathalie Roy, a former journalist, lawyer and current Member of the National Assembly in Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec. Yet the CAQ blocked a motion last year to remove the crucifix that continues to hang in the province’s National Assembly.
This divisive and hypocritical rhetoric continues to negatively impact people in a variety of ways. Several Muslims running in this past provincial election faced blatant racism and Islamophobia. One candidate in Quebec City had to limit his campaigning after a poster of him was shot at and after receiving death threats. Two women were filmed as they vandalized the campaign poster of another candidate who wears a headscarf.
Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and other minority communities in Quebec will once again be counting on each other, and on their allies, to unite against this latest effort to minimize, even erase, their presence. And one shouldn’t assume that such populist tendencies won’t emerge elsewhere in this country.
Ms. El-Alloul’s case therefore should remind all of us – not just Quebeckers - that even a little resistance can go a long way in asserting our human rights in the face of nonsensical discrimination.