Quarrel over religious rights threatens to ensnare federal leaders

The next chapter in Quebec’s decade-old search for a different balance between state secularism and religious rights is about to open. The debate will almost certainly overlap with the upcoming federal campaign.

For Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and his Conservative counterpart, Andrew Scheer, the road to electoral success will at least, in part, run through Quebec next fall.

Voters in that province, but also in the rest of the country, will be watching to see how they handle an issue that pits some charter-protected fundamental freedoms against what the polls report to be a large Quebec consensus.

But first, a look at the state of play in Quebec itself.

The National Assembly reopens next week. Government legislation to limit the religious freedoms of some public sector employees is expected to follow within weeks.

The intentions of the Coalition Avenir Quebec are well known.

Premier Francois Legault is set to impose a secular dress code on public officials in so-called positions of authority. In his book, that means judges, police officers, prison guards and teachers.

The government has yet to determine whether the secular dress code would apply only to future hires or also to those who are already part of the system.

If the latter option is chosen, the government can expect a trench war with not only the teachers’ unions, but also parents, students and school authorities, in particular, in Montreal.

The CAQ has a majority in the National Assembly. It needs to make no compromise to get its legislation passed. But unless it uses the notwithstanding clause to shelter its planned law from a charter-based challenge, it will inevitably have to defend it in court.

A positive outcome for the government is not guaranteed. For that reason, Legault may opt to close off the most obvious avenues for a legal challenge by using the charter escape clause up front.

One way or another, the politics are messy for every provincial party.

Although they all officially support, to at least some extent, the imposition of limits to religious expression within the Quebec public sector, there are divisions within every caucus.

For that reason, the opposition parties may share Legault’s interest in putting the issue behind the National Assembly as expeditiously as possible.

This will be the third kick at the can by successive Quebec governments. Notwithstanding polls that show overwhelming public support for the principle of curtailing religious freedoms in the name of a secular state, it has not been a winning issue for either of the CAQ’s predecessors.

In 2012, the Parti Quebecois’s minority government had hoped the imposition of a secular dress code across the public service would ensure its re-election with a majority. Instead, voters shipped the party back to opposition.

The Quebec Liberals’ veil ban fell short of the demands of the pro-secularism lobby, but left part of the party’s base feeling betrayed by the erosion of the right of religious freedom. It probably cost former premier Philippe Couillard more support than it attracted.

In the last federal election, both the Bloc Quebecois and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives championed a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies. The Liberals and the New Democrats opposed it.

Once the Quebec votes were counted, a majority of the province’s seats – 56 out of 78 – were in Liberal and NDP hands.

Over on the pro-ban camp, the Bloc saw its share of the popular vote decline from the previous federal vote. At around 16 per cent, the Conservative’s Quebec take was virtually unchanged.

If that sounds like a paradox, consider that public support for a given concept in a poll does not automatically elevate it to the rank of a ballot-box issue.

Outside the island of Montreal, one is more likely to find a needle in a haystack than to come across a veiled teacher. At last count, there is not a single turbaned police officer in Quebec.

For all the passions expended by the province’s chattering class on this debate, it has little direct connection to the everyday life of most Quebecers.

In Quebec, as elsewhere, voters have been known to make federal choices that seem to run counter to their provincial preferences.

At a time when Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque were at odds on the significantly more fundamental issue of the language law in the early 1980s, each won a majority of Quebec seats.

That is not to say that the prime minister should relish running against the Quebec tide on religious accommodation next fall.

But at the end of the day, it may be easier for the Liberals to do that than for Scheer’s Quebec Conservative candidates to champion the resurrection of the Energy East pipeline.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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