Erna Paris is the author of seven books on politics, history and historical memory. Her most recent book is From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain.
In his famous 14th-century work The Inferno, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri created a special abode in hell for wily flatterers. He considered sycophancy a wrongdoing against the entire community – a deceit with the potential to alter society for the worse.
Dante might have nodded knowingly had he observed Canada’s leader-courtiers line up to pay obeisance to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s defense of the indefensible during last week’s federal election debates. The quid pro quo was each leader’s personal support for Bill 21, the Quebec legislation that prohibits the display of religious symbols by public-sector workers in the workplace, in return for potential electoral support in the province.
Although Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have previously implied that as prime minister they might challenge Bill 21, they and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole have confirmed their support for a noxious law that discriminates against the rights of religious minorities. To back such legislation is not only hypocrisy on the part of Canadian leaders, but an affront to the fundamental commitments we espouse in this country. During the debate, it was striking to note that in the same breath as the main party leaders refused to challenge Quebec’s right to discriminate, they simultaneously mouthed their support for the Canadian shibboleths of human rights and equality.
Bill 21 is not innocuous. Some religions require a dress code as an element of orthodox worship. Think the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban and the Muslim headscarf, to name just three. This is frequently a religious obligation – which, if rejected, places the individual in contravention of his or her faith. While it is likely that everyone on the debate stage understood the true nature of the law, they succumbed to Mr. Blanchet’s assertation that they agreed, although sheepishly. Given that he would presumably be denied the right to work in Quebec’s public sector because he wears a turban, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s long-time acquiescence seems particularly ingratiating. “Quebec has the right to make its own determinations,” he has repeatedly said.
We are inured to degrees of pandering during election campaigns, but the collective compliance of our leaders with legal discrimination against minorities is galling. Because, as Dante understood centuries ago, there are larger consequences at play.
To understand this, let us consider that from the time of Confederation, nation-building has been the job description of Canadian governments. To keep this unlikely country from fracturing, Canadian leaders have practiced compromise, especially with Quebec, while our courts balanced civil rights using case-law precedents. This hasn’t been easy; for the first half of our history our policies were overtly racist, as the uncovering of residential school realities has laid bare. In the 1920s and 1930s, Canada’s immigration policies favoured British arrivals while denying entry to other “lesser” peoples.
These attitudes slowly changed in the years following the Second World War – culminating, in my view, with official multiculturalism, which confirmed that no group of Canadians was superior to another, and with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Like all social transformations, these remain controversial in many quarters, but they have become the foundation of contemporary Canada.
It is for this reason that the sycophantic acceptance of discriminatory legislation in Quebec is dangerous for Canada as a whole. When our leaders trade foundational principles for electoral purposes, they undermine the country at large.
The pushback has been so weak that the most egregious distortions of language have gone unremarked upon. During the debates, Mr. Blanchet said that Bill 21 cannot be described as discriminatory because it reflects the values of Quebec – perhaps the most specious argument for discrimination that we have heard since the pre-war years. When Catholics and Italians were undermined in an earlier Canada, was this acceptable because the “values” of Canadians were in favour? Was it acceptable for Indigenous children to be maltreated in Canada because those were the “values” of the day?
In 1995, three generations of my family travelled to Montreal to appeal to our Québécois co-citizens not to separate from our shared country, but what is even more harmful today is that Quebec no longer has to leave. By consenting to an injurious law, our federal leaders have joined the rest of Canada to that province. In doing so, they separate us from the underlying vision of equality of opportunity and the protection of minorities that today characterizes this country.
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