Stéphanie Vallée commentary Living together in harmony

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In Quebec, living together in harmony has long been a focus of society-wide debate. In addition, accommodation on religious grounds has also been widely discussed, and Quebecers’ expectations were clear: government had to exercise leadership and tackle this issue.

This was the Quebec Liberal Party’s commitment to Quebecers in 2013, and what it proposed in its 2014 electoral program; this commitment lies at the heart of Bill 62, which was passed and given assent on Oct. 18.

In a democratic, pluralist and inclusive society that promotes harmonious intercultural relations, it is essential to establish ground rules that ensure respect for all. Some people claim Bill 62 goes too far; others that it does not go far enough. Although the various political parties at the National Assembly have different conceptions of what living together in harmony entails, they nevertheless agree that public services must be given and received with the face uncovered. The main political parties have all tabled bills that include the requirement of an uncovered face for the giving and receiving of public services. Furthermore, an Angus Reid survey published on Oct. 4 showed that 87 per cent of Quebecers supported the objectives of Bill 62.

In order to promote social cohesion, the government had to strike a balance by defining a common denominator on which all could agree.

Much has been said and written about the requirement to have one’s face uncovered, and it appears necessary to rectify some misconceptions. First, the goal of the Act is not to ban the wearing of religious symbols or to dictate how citizens should dress in public spaces. Instead, it requires that the face be uncovered when giving or receiving a public service in order to ensure identification, full communication and security.

Such a rule guarantees the conditions necessary for living together in harmony and establishes the modalities for social communication and human relationships that are indispensable to live in society. This is what the European Court of Human Rights recognized in July 2017: the principle of social cohesion.

Quebec does not want to stigmatize or marginalize anyone. On the contrary, its goal is to introduce rules to ensure the quality of communications between individuals, to allow a person’s identity to be verified, and to guarantee security for all in the delivery of public services. These are all key objectives in a free and democratic society.

The Act will allow us to define a necessary balance between respect for human rights and freedoms and the legitimate objectives connected with the delivery of public services. As for the principle of the religious neutrality of the state, it is a natural extension of the separation between religious institutions and the state, which already applies in Quebec. According to the Supreme Court, neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals. This principle is shared by all governments in Canada.

The religious neutrality of the state guarantees that people who hold, or do not hold, religious beliefs will not be treated any differently by representatives of the state. The Act sends a clear signal to citizens that their beliefs will be respected.

As for accommodation on religious grounds, the criteria set out in the Act essentially codify the current jurisprudence-based criteria used to facilitate the processing of requests for accommodation resulting from the application of Section 10 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Similar criteria are applied throughout Canada. The Act adds that any request for accommodation must be consistent with the right of equality between women and men. This is imperative in an egalitarian society such as Quebec’s, and also highlights the importance of this value for our society.

Last, by this Act, the Quebec government demonstrates an approach based more on consensus than on repression. The rules on living together in harmony must be defined collectively, with input from all players in society. The Act is intended as a positive contribution to the debate, and as a foundation for harmonious relations between citizens. Quebec society is open and tolerant, and a serene dialogue must continue in the same spirit.

Stéphanie Vallée is the Minister of Justice for the province of Quebec.

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